Posted by: Kovács Péter | December 7, 2009

Community Relations 2.0

Source: Harvard Business Publishing

I have received this article from my colleague, Réka.

With the rise of real-time social media, the rules about community outreach have changed.

In 2003, Boston University Medical Campus (BUMC) announced plans to build an advanced high-security laboratory to study virulent biological agents. Stakeholders expected the lab to conduct groundbreaking research leading to public health and counterterrorism advances that would combat weaponized versions of Ebola, tularemia, anthrax, and other lethal diseases. At first, the project was widely hailed as a boon to national security, to the region’s standing as a biotech leader, and to Boston’s economy.

And then suddenly the tide turned. Known officially as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, the facility was sited near BUMC at the junction of Boston’s residential South End and Roxbury neighborhoods. The more residents heard about the kinds of substances their new neighbor would handle, the less eager they were to have the building in their midst. How secure would it be? What if something got out? Wouldn’t the lab be a high-profile target for terrorists? If it was as safe as proponents claimed, why couldn’t it be built in an affluent suburb like Brookline, Newton, or Wellesley?

In no small part, online activism drove powerful community opposition. A single-issue website, stopthebiolab.org, quickly galvanized a community of staunch resistance. Established organizations devoted to the environment, public health, and social justice (the Conservation Law Foundation, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and Boston Mobilization, among others) used their websites to amplify the message. Lawsuits were filed, and in no time the lab went from slam dunk to slog. The facility’s opening has been delayed by a federal court order for further environmental safety studies. Research may never be permitted on the most dangerous substances the lab was built to study.

Businesses and other institutions have long practiced “community outreach” to nurture positive, cooperative relationships between themselves and the public. Before the internet, firms had far more time to methodically monitor and respond to community activity. With the rise of social media, that luxury has vanished, leaving a community-management vacuum in dire need of fresh skills, adaptive tactics, and a coherent strategy. In fact, in today’s hyperconnected world, a company’s community has few geographical barriers; it comprises all customers and interested parties, not just local neighbors. This article, based on our research examining social media engagement at more than two dozen firms, describes the changes wrought by social media platforms and shows how your company can make the most of this brave new world.

What’s Different About New Communities?

IT-enabled collaborative tools such as social networks, wikis, and blogs greatly increase a community’s speed of formation and magnify its impact and reach. New communities come together and disperse quickly and are often led by different people at different moments. And mobile interfaces keep groups on the alert, ready to drum up information or break into action.

Communities vary widely in their purpose and membership—and in their tone, which can range from friendly and collaborative to ardently hostile. The importance of sorting out which is which—and then deciding whether and how to engage—makes the discipline of managing them a delicate and highly strategic internal capability.

Many of the social media communities we cite come from the health care industry, where participation is robust and influential. A report from Manhattan Research suggests that more than 60 million Americans are consumers of “health 2.0” resources. They read or contribute to blogs, wikis, social networks, and other peer-produced efforts, using Google as the de facto starting point. The lessons we extract here apply to online communities in other knowledge-driven fields, such as law (Divorce360), finance (Wikinvest, Marketocracy), publishing (Wikipedia, the Huffington Post), and R&D (InnoCentive, IdeaStorm).

With social media, we’ve moved beyond the era of stand-alone, static webpages. Today’s communities actively post and vet information. Users increasingly treat these venues as theirfirst stop in gathering data and forming an opinion. A recent Pew study found that nearly 40% of Americans say they have doubted a medical professional’s opinion or diagnosis because it conflicted with information they’d found online. If users put that much faith in what they learn on the internet, what will they be willing to believe if members of a social media forum start trashing your organization? And are you prepared to handle it when it happens?

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