Tuesday, 27 September 2011

So Your Church Wants Social Media ...

My firm belief is that every church needs to engage with social media and start to use it. To not engage with social media is about the same as not making use of email, telephones or the combustion-engine motor-car simply because they seem to be modern irrelevances. The simple fact is that more and more people in the West are engaging in dialogue moderated and delivered through social media. 

I also acknowledge that it isn't as simple as just wanting to engage with and harness the benefits of social media, because our congregations and parish councils are often populated by those unaccustomed to the electronic, regard their advent as suspect at best and who may in turn become isolated by its introduction. This said, if we took the same view over history, people wouldn't have Bibles in their personal possession and the art of reading would remain the province of the landed gentry. Progress is necessary and indeed vital, so long as it is tailored to bring with it those who are vulnerable to its effects (usually by immediate isolation).

With this in mind, and following on from conversations already had on the subject, I though I would jot down my thoughts as to the process that parishes could use to bring this development to life. I am mindful that parishes already have varying degrees of involvement with social media, though they may not use that label!

What Is It? Social Media is the overarching title for direct communication by way of the internet. Any parish with a website of any capacity or capability is already engaged with social media, albeit passively. The current understanding of social media is more specifically concerned with actions of communication, often in real-time and often solely over the internet - be those actions in the form of 'chat', instant message, blogging or micro-blogging. A parish community unfamiliar with this mode of communicating would need to appreciate the subtleties and drawbacks (as well as the great opportunities) of this form of faceless communication. 

Who? This may seem an odd consideration for a parish, but this is a decision not to be taken lightly. The one doing the communicating is placed in a position of considerable power, often speaking on behalf of the entire community to a very wide and unpredictable audience. Someone with some experience of social media (and its nuances and its vernacular), supported and moderated by at least one other person would be advisable. This ensures that the 'output' is broad and balanced, and not rooted in the aspirations and 'hobby-horses' of the operator. Needless to day, the person concerned should always hold in their mind that they always speak for their community, and anything that emerges in the social media is hard to remove. 

Planning - If a parish is to engage in social media, it would make all sorts of sense to have the agreement of the parish council (or its equivalent). To do something positive and new can be a risk-laden proposition and it is easy for the operator to be left high-and-dry if any problems arise later. The organisation as a whole should take ownership of the initiative, even if at the hands of one or two specific individuals (operators). They should also be familiar with the output as a matter of course. 

Planning 2 - Boundary setting is very important. What is off-limits to the wider world? What is the core message? How does the community preserve the operator? What happens if things go wrong? Do you discuss services or acts of worship? Do you comment on sermons or talks? What about images? Recordings and audio capture? How is orthodoxy maintained?These are all clear decisions that need to be made and probably a myriad more. 

Accountability - who is accountable - The operator? The council or leadership team? Someone needs to be, after all. If accountability is given, can it be taken back later? Who hold passwords and where? With accountability comes responsibility and the same questions need to be settled.

Document - to my mind, a document stating who does what and under what terms, on what media forum and to what purpose - all need to be documented. I would go so far as to state that they need to be filed with official papers like Minutes and votes taken. They are all layers of protection either for the operator or the organisation. 

Review - the leadership team/council should review the output in conjunction with the appointed operator, and on a regular basis. When someone speaks on their behalf in front of possibly millions of people (in the case of Twitter and blogs), the community needs to be aware of the essence of that commentary and respond accordingly. 

If there are substantial doubts - then don't do it until those doubts are assuaged or gone. Engines such as Facebook has caused concerns for many people, regarding secrecy and the dissemination of information to third parties. Because things cannot be unsaid or easily un-published, it is better to be positive about such a venture before launching forth on it, rather than stepping tentatively into a perceived minefield. One is a pleasure, the other a constant source of stress. 

These are my own thoughts. There is nothing to stop anyone doing anything, but 'in whose name' makes a considerable difference. In simple terms, the greater number of people who are involved in the evolution of such a development the better - given that in the early days, its outworking is in the hands of a small minority. 

Lastly, let social media not become the first word and the last. There are always people in our communities for whom this activity is exclusive and into which they could ever venture. Make social media but one means of communicating with the wider world, and certainly never at the expense of inter-personal or tangible means which grant access to all. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said on all the above. We once had a problem when an initially well-respected webmaster went over to the dark side and started linking our site to all manner of bizarre sites. What that said about our parish can only be imagined!

    You also support my views on anonymity. For those of us who are in positions of authority in one arena but wish to communicate in another, we have no right to be other than virtually anonymous. However, there are those who treat anonymity as some kind of mortal sin and refuse to engage with anyone who doesn't give name, rank & number.

    What you are addressing here is communication by the 'corporate' (if I may use a business term without fear of excommunication!) and in that realm, corporate image is everything and needs to be controlled by the organisation. Editorial control must be retained by those central to it.



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