8 Lessons for Nonprofits from IPRRC 2014

IPRRC 2014 presentationThis is one of three articles that cover the 2014 International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC):

by Katie Paine — 26% of the 106 papers presented at this year’s IPRRC conference in Miami focused on non-profits, so I thought it would be useful to summarize some of the best advice and most interesting findings.

IPRRC logo

1. Take better advantage of Facebook.

Even the big guys are pretty lame on Facebook. Hilary Fussell Sisco of Quinnipiac University, Tina McCorkindale of Appalachian State University, and Marcia DiStaso of Penn State studied the Facebook behaviors of the top 100 nonprofits (How non-profits engage stakeholders: An analysis of the top 100 nonprofits on Facebook). While they have certainly improved since 2009, they are still pretty pathetic. The researchers looked at four categories of communications:

  1. Disclosure – e.g., listing of administrators, program descriptions, organization history, and mission statement
  2. Information Dissemination – e.g., links to other social media accounts, photos, videos, and blogs
  3. Involvement – e.g., opportunities to volunteer, methods to donate, or offering an e-commerce score
  4. Engagement – e.g., responding to comments, allowing others to post on their wall, who effort to gain feedback or responses

They found some amazingly lax Facebook efforts:

  • 60% do not have a donate button on their Facebook page
  • 52% don’t include information on how to support the organization with time or money
  • 27% don’t even list an email address
  • 35% don’t have a phone number
  • 45% don’t list a calendar of events

Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is the low level of two-way conversation. Only 29% actually respond to comments, and 25% don’t even allow others to post on their wall.

What they do do well is one-way communication, putting out information about their programs, their mission statement, and their website.

2.  Have you thought about LinkedIn lately?

Yue Zheng of the University of South Carolina may be the first person ever to study the use of LinkedIn by nonprofits (How American Cancer Society Is Using LinkedIn for Stakeholder Managements: A Thematic Analysis). Her research focussed on the use of LinkedIn by the American Cancer Society to maintain relationships with its stakeholders. She found that they used LinkedIn as a sort of community forum, posting tips and ideas between groups. And that their postings encourage high levels of trust, control mutuality, and relationship satisfaction in those communities. Sadly, they don’t actually participate in the communications. Most were limited to one-way broadcasts of event information.

The lesson for other nonprofits is that LinkedIn can be a rich and productive source of volunteers and enthusiasts for your cause. They’re probably already talking about you. Why don’t you join the conversation?

Zheng suggests that nonprofits:

  1. Participate more aggressively
  2. Provide links to websites and other related sites
  3. Organize and analyze the strategies and results used by organizers to disseminate best practices

3. Use Twitter to take advantage of current events.

Mayor Bloomberg and others that are advocating for greater gun control could learn a thing or two from the opposition. John Brummette, Lyn Zoch, Nara Cavalcanti, and Sheena Palmer of Radford University investigated how the National Rifle Association (NRA) uses Twitter to advance its agenda (Tweeting for your Second Amendment rights: A content analysis of how the NRA uses Twitter to serve its members and target its opponents). Leveraging the breaking news focus of Twitter, the research found that the NRA used Twitter to both engage the public in its cause sand with the organization itself. Specifically its tactics included:

  • Denouncing the opposition
  • Publicizing supporters
  • Attacking individual opponents
  • Pointing out hypocrisy on behalf of opponents
  • Highlighting incidents that support the organization’s cause, e.g., a Marine Corps veteran stopped a man from kicking a woman by holding the suspect at gunpoint
  • Attacking the arguments of the opposition
  • Calling for grassroots action
  • Highlighting organization victories
  • Asking for membership and participation , e.g., Vote for your favorite gun in the NRA Firearm Faceoff
  • Promoting events
  • Targeting messages to minority populations

4. If you’re going mobile, make sure that you have a high level of interactivity both technically and from a message perspective.

While their study tested a commercial product, the findings of Xue Dou of Keio University and S. Shyam Sudar of Penn State regarding the impact of mobile websites on an organization’s relationship with its stakeholders contain good lessons for nonprofits as well (Cultivating Relationships through a Mobile Website: The Importance of Modality Interactivity and Message Interactivity).

The research team explored two aspects of interactivity, the physical interaction techniques and the style of messaging – two-way, reactive vs. interactive. Their findings suggest that the first thing an organization needs to understand is whether its constituencies are power users (who tend to use mobile apps more frequently) and expect more than average user. From a practical perspective they advise that an organization can improve its relationships with stakeholders by better matching the ways a user can interact with the organization to the actual usage patterns of the stakeholders. People who were more satisfied with the nature of interactivity were more likely to recommend the organization to friends. They also found higher levels of control mutuality and commitment when people could interact from a message perspective with the organization.

5. Your influencers are probably using Twitter.

A study of who actually uses Twitter to talk about corporate social responsibility revealed a growing community of influencers in the world of CSR. Lina Gomez, Lucely Vargas-Preciado, Ramiro Cea-Moure, and Ismail Adelopo studied 1623 tweets posted in a three-month period using the #csr hashtag (CSR dialogue on social media platforms: An analysis of CSR tweets).

They found that consultants and the media were the most frequent Tweeters about CSR. More interestingly, the most frequent topic was environment and community development, while the least discussed were fair operating practices and organizational governance. Also most Tweets linked to blogs. They found that constructive storytelling was most effective in generating Tweets.

6. Just because the crisis is over, it doesn’t mean that the community goes away.

Several studies looked at the aftermath of crises and found that when people are linked in a social network during a crisis, those links tend to remain in place long after the crisis has passed (e.g., Janoske, M.L., Building Online Communities After Crises: Two Case Studies).  Nonprofits would be wise to leverage those communities as future donors and volunteers.

7. Really bad things happen if you don’t understand your audience.

All four of the papers that studied Komen vs. Planned Parenthood attributed Komen’s failure and Planned Parenthood’s problems to a lack of understanding of the primary audience – women. Going into the crisis both organizations had worked for years to position themselves as being  dedicated to advocating for women’s health. The trouble was that the women whose health they had been advocating for had a very different reaction to the defunding announcement than Komen had expected.

On the other hand, Planned Parenthood had about a month to prepare for the announcement and took full advantage of that time to look at their data and craft messages that would resonate with women. Their pro-active approach was focused on a single goal: Change the conversation about their brand away from the politically charged debate about abortion towards a new debate about the unmet need for women’s health care and Planned Parenthood’s role in that safety net.

The problem, according to research by Christine M. Willingham of Florida State University (Susan G. Komen & Planned Parenthood: The Cost of NOT Understanding the Connections Between Cultural Values and Brand Values for Nonprofit Organizations), is that both organizations thought they were positioned as being “advocates for women.” But whereas Planned Parenthood’s messages were consistent with that positioning, Komen’s quickly became politicized, probably because they were caught by surprise at the intensity of public reaction to the de-funding and were slow to react.

In another paper on the Komen/Planned Parenthood kerfuffle, Alan Abitbol of Texas Tech University proved the importance of consistency in a crisis (Examining Facebook Message Strategies during a Crisis: A Case Study of Susan G. Komen’s Announcement to Defund Planned Parenthood). Abitbol examined the content of Susan G. Komen’s Facebook posts during the crisis and found that its stance was initially accommodating, but then as the vitriol increased, it shifted to a more adversarial approach, and then when that didn’t work , it switched back to be accommodating. Interestingly, the number and nature of interactions on Facebook correlated with these shifts, with the more accommodating stance generating more likes and favorable comments.

8. Don’t forget partners and sponsors in a crisis.

In the heat of planning your crisis response it is easy to forget other stakeholders, such as sponsors and partners. Christina Cameron and Michael Mitrook of the University of South Florida found that a large number of the comments at the time of the crisis called for boycotts of those sponsors (Public relations efforts in Social Media: An examination of corporate partner’s social media responses to a partnership charity in crisis). So if you’re going to prominently feature sponsors on your website, prepare them for backlash in a crisis. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.