To the fringes…

In the extended entry I put forward some thoughts on moving the WWF website and certain communications from a centralised model to a more decentralised model.

At WWF I work in the media/communications area. We have a highly skilled team of media professionals – which includes radio, print and wire news journalists – who work hard to ensure that WWF’s reputation as a science-based, constructive environmental advocacy organisation, is maintained through our dealings with the media.

This maintenance of the WWF brand (which is much more than just the Panda logo – it incorporates values as well) is of vital importance to us as an organisation. This is not just “brand hype” – this is all about ensuring that we can continue to play an active role in effecting real and lasting change for the benefit of the environment and for all of us who live within it. It has been built over many years of constructive engagement with government, industry, the public and other NGOs. It has been built on the back of the professional reputations of leading scientists that have aligned themselves with WWF. It has been built across thousands of environmental projects and campaigns.

At the same time the organisation, and its reputation, are under threat from ouside entities (organisations and individuals) that would like to see the influence of the organisation undermined. This means that a bad media decision can have significant negative affects on the organisation and its effectiveness. This may sound all rather negative and pretentious, but it is a real threat. I have already seen, in the short time I’ve been at WWF, such situations arise.

We (the organisation and especially the media/comms team) need to be incredibly diligent and aware of how public comments can cause significant damage to reputations (organisational and individual). One wrong word can undo months (or even years) of political work to achieve long-term benefits. In a media environment built on sensationalism and controversy, it is naive, in my opinion, to not have some level of awareness and control over interaction with the media.

There’s been a lot made recently of the impact that weblogs are having/can have on organisations and their communications. The general gist of this train of thought is for the individuals in an organisation to “join the web conversation” typically through weblogs with feedback mechanisms (comments/email/trackbacks etc.).

I definitely see the value of this approach. We started down that path with huméco and even though that project is mostly on hold, the weblog opened up significant dialogue with people that simply would have been unavailable and/or unknown to us had we not started the weblog.

Another example is my tech blog through which initiated a dialogue with a trial user of the NETaccounts product I was working on. This person had missed some key functionality of the product in a review. Through the weblog I was able to provide further information that lead to a positive response and I think changed the relationship between us and our customer.

We found Jim’s comments through Google. It wasn’t an email to us – it was Jim sharing his experience with others. We were outside the conversation, until I responded which entered us into it. Through trackbacks and other weblog technologies others can follow the “thread”.

I’ve always wanted to more heavily integrate the conversational approach of weblogs into communications for business and other organisations. Having started at WWF this concept is still very prevalent in my thinking. I don’t yet believe that WWF is ready, as an organisation, to embrace this approach, for valid reasons that I explore below. I’m writing this in the hope that I can clarify my thinking, but also garner some responses that may help me to work out how to move ahead over time to a more conversational and open web dialogue.

This presents, for me, a dilemma. How do we create a conversational environment when such controls need to be maintained? How do we empower people within our organisation with communication tools without opening the organisation up to attack from those with interests in conflict with ours? One could argue, of course, these conversations are happening anyway. This weblog is an example (I’m sure there are others) of conversations that happen outside this control.

I also think there is great opportunity for the ‘Panda’ to explain itself better to others who may not fully understand why certain decisions are made or approaches are taken. I am already aware that the Panda is seen as too conservative by some on the left – that we, as an organisation, are too cozy with the pollies and corporates to do the right thing. Or that we accept gains that are too small (for example, I am aware of at least one negative email we have received about calling the recent Ningaloo protections a “win” when it is only 34% protected – the correspondent felt that only 100% protection was enough). The right also isn’t fond of us because we are pushing a progressive environmental agenda. Conversations like these are happening whether we like it or no, no doubt both inside and outside the organisation.

A conversational approach would allow the organisation to better communicate its objectives – one that is looking to engage both sides of the political debate to achieve practical and achievable outcomes.

On a project level such an approach might empower project leaders to improve their communications with their local community and partner organisation stakeholders. It would give them a voice currently lacking in the current website for presenting news about their specific projects. Ditto for publication authors – to engage in debate with peers and other interested parties. This may or may not be realistic in different circumstances, but the opportunities are surely there.

But there are still many dangers. For example – that same person empowered to post information about their project may speak negatively of a government decision related to their project that WWF, for political reasons, chooses to support. This kind of conflict may occur consciously or unconsciously (the person may just be speaking their mind, unaware of the political implications). On a politically sensitive issue, or in a politically sensitive environment (like election time), such “loose talk” could be extremely damaging to the causes we are all so passionate about.

One part of the solution is training of those given the ability to update areas of the website in the realities of the media environment in which we operate. This can help, but requires significant investment of time and resources for that training to take place. And it is certainly not a guarantee that mistakes will be avoided.

Also, there is the risk that extreme opponents might hijack the debate if we enable common community features such as comments and discussion groups. There is an argument to say that if an opponent tries to do this that a measured and informed response could help diffuse the opposition. However, this can be counter-productive by giving “air” to falacious claims or by wasting resources handling claims that would not, ordinarily, warrant the effort of a response.

I am unclear about how to address these issues – both conceptually and practically. Before I can really present ideas to the organisation I feel I need to have responses to these obvious issues. My natural tendancy is to join the conversation, but that can only happen with support from the organisation, which will require a strong business case and clear thinking about how to reduce and mitigate the risks.