Strategic Options in Social Media - Addressing Member Negativity

Through social media, information can reach a greater number of people more quickly and more directly and this has consequences for sport organizations. A  side effect of the pervasiveness of social media is the requirement for greater organizational transparency. Understand that communicating through social media (like Twitter and Facebook) is different than communicating through more traditional media like email and face-to-face interactions. A member of an organization who feels wronged by a decision made at the board level can target readership and disseminate information without context.

For example, as a coach at my local baseball association I am often affected by puzzling decisions made by our volunteer board of directors.  I recently expressed my frustration about one such decision on my personal Facebook page. My status update was potentially seen by athletes, coaches, and other affected parties (who all number among my Facebook friends). Ten years ago I would not have had had this outlet.  I would have needed multiple phone conversations, a few face-to-face chats, and a dozen emails in order to reach that same audience. Within that time, undoubtedly, my frustration would have ebbed.

In the example above, should I have been privy to the reasons for (or context of) the decision that affected me, I would have been less frustrated and less inclined to enact my frustration by posting on Facebook.  Of course I would not be completely appeased – but at least I would have understood.

Being criticized by members is not new to organizations. There are some occasions where facets of membership actively work against the established board or executive. The case of the Alberta Soccer Association and its two boards (one legitimate – and one not) is a more recent and public example.  However, being criticized by members on Facebook and Twitter IS new and can be handled by organizations.

An organization can take two steps – one preventative and one reactive.

To prevent member negativity, having greater transparency with organizational decisions is paramount. Where before a complaint about a decision could be limited to whomever the member talked to, now it can be instantly distributed to the member’s entire social network. Even sending an email has more 'sober second thought' than posting a Facebook status update or a tweet. Organizational decisions cannot be as internally contained as before or given incomplete context.

As a reactive measure, organizations can have official presences on social media sites to ensure appropriate actions, engagement, and responses when warranted. This is not to say that an organization must interact with the complainant via social media – but the organization must be available in this medium to counter the effects of the negativity. Whereas before, ten years ago, an organization could sweep away or more easily ignore the fallout from a complaint about an unpopular decision, now the organization is confronted with a very public backlash from even the most minor misunderstandings.

One approach by NSOs has been to have an official organizational presence on Facebook through the use of an NSO profile. Though not technically allowable by Facebook terms of use, an NSO profile can be friends with supporters, members and athletes and proactively engage with these stakeholders arguably better than a more passive Fan Page. However, people may view this NSO profile as a phony intrusion of privacy – unless the purpose of the profile (to actively engage and respond to athletes and new/old members) and the person behind the profile (employees, interns, or whomever) are explained in advance as part of a social media strategy.  This official representation of the NSO on Facebook can actively work to diffuse negativity directed to the NSO.

Naturally many organizations do not have the resources to maintain official presences on Twitter and Facebook. This limitation perhaps speaks to as-yet-to-come strategic opportunities for the organization. If the organization has resources to promote the organization through a Facebook Fan Page or an official Twitter account – then a broader strategic approach to social media could be to engage individual members to varying capacities; one of which could be to reactively respond to complaints and negative comments.

Local organizations, clubs and even provincial associations should focus on the preventative options available to them – particularly in the areas of being more transparent and explanatory in their decision-making.  National sport organizations, with more resources and against whom the complaints are often more significant, should focus on the reactive options. NSO board-level decision making is often more proprietary than local or provincial decision-making so transparency must still be more guarded, and official representations of the NSO on a social media website must still be empowered yet must be prudent.

Kevin Lawrie
krl@sportlaw.ca

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