Most organizations know that they can’t enter a new market until they understand all the laws, policies, official guidelines, and unwritten cultural rules they need to understand to operate in the new area. Companies usually seek to immerse themselves in the concerns and issues of their industry colleagues. Media relations professionals deeply study the journalists, bloggers, and analysts who they seek to reach on their brand’s behalf.
Why are companies often so woefully unprepared to engage with communities in an online setting?
These issues have been glaring for me these past few months. I have worked with colleagues in my industry–such as professional communicators, public relations departments, and marketing teams–to help bring greater attention to one group that’s been inundated with people from our profession entering their community with far too little regard for their community’s rules and norms: the volunteer community of Wikipedia editors.
Sure, some bad actors from organizations have intentionally tried to obfuscate or find loopholes in the way the Wikipedia community manages the work of maintaining the world’s largest and most open encyclopedia. In my mind, the hordes of professional communicators are far worse, as they listened only enough to know that Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, but they neglected to pay any attention to the community itself.
As a result, representatives from organizations who have little knowledge of the norms and cultures of the volunteer editing community are dumping their brochure-ware in the middle of the town square–by building new entries on land that doesn’t belong to them, polluting the water streams with corporate bios of their whole management team, and trying to gentrify and spruce up any factoid they don’t like.
Enough with the physical community metaphors. But, with representatives from companies taking such an approach, it’s no wonder that many editors have gone from a healthy skepticism toward people who come into the space with a potential conflict interest to–in many cases–deep cynicism, anger, and a deaf ear toward anyone working on an organization’s behalf.
Marcia Distaso, a professor of advertising and PR at the Pennsylvania State University, has studied the relationship between the PR community and Wikipedia editors for several years now. Her 2013 research shows that 40% of PR professionals surveyed said they had engaged on Wikipedia, yet 75% of professionals surveyed were not aware of, or did not understand some of the most important community norms in the space.
A group of leading communications firms–including my agency, Peppercomm–published a statement in June confirming that our organizations prioritize understanding and respecting the community norms, values, policies, and guidelines that structure the Wikipedia project. More importantly, we wanted to express that we see engaging with the Wikipedia project as being about supporting the ethos and goal of the project first, and our organizations second.
We made the statement to bring greater understanding of what the Wikipedia project is within our professional world. But we also did it to make clear that many in our field do seek to engage ethically with the Wikipedia editor community, based on their priorities, ethos, and norms . . . and to set ourselves up to a greater level of scrutiny.
While we do hope to build a better relationship with Wikipedia editors and to help people throughout our field understand the Wikipedia editor community in particular, this is about more than that one site, or community. As Edelman’s Phil Gomes, one of the collaborators on our Wikipedia statement, recently said: Professional communicators “will only be as good at online community engagement as they are in participating in Wikipedia.”
The larger issue is that most organizations’ communications strategies focus far too heavily on what we want to say and see, and far too little on actually getting to know the communities we seek to reach and the issues they care about.
In short, no matter what the online community, if you really want to be seen as a true participant, to engage authentically in that space, and to be seen as a leader by the people in it, you actually have to roll your sleeves up and immerse yourself in the community on its terms. That doesn’t mean messaging at them. It doesn’t mean just offering them the chance to take part in your company’s contest. Lastly, it doesn’t mean identifying a couple of influencers who can somehow magically make everyone else follow along like sheep.
There’s no magic shortcut to the hard work of listening, empathy, and–ultimately–of seeing yourself as advocating to your organization on the community’s behalf as heavily as you advocate to the community on your organization’s behalf.
Those who can take the time to truly understand the communities that are important to them stand a better chance not only of having meaningful dialogue but, more importantly, of leading their organization’s ability to better serve those key audiences.
The long-term sustainability of your reputation–and your business–depends on it.