Identifying and Managing the Risks of (not) Engaging Online

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Identifying Risk

 

As the founders of Bang the
Table
, a company that hosts and moderates online engagement, we spend a
good deal of our time talking to potential clients about the perceived risks of
engaging the community online.  This
essay reflects what we have learned from that experience about attitudes to
online engagement and risks, both perceived and real and then shares some of
our thoughts on the best ways to manage those risks.

Despite the many benefits of involving more people in decision
processes[i]
there remains a sense of reluctance and fear in many quarters when it comes to
embracing new technologies in order to give those people a voice.  Some decision makers persist with the belief
that to allow the community to communicate directly and openly with an
organization represents an unacceptable degree of risk. 

This fear was well summarized by Matthew Fraser &
Soumitra Dutta[ii]
of INSEAD in a 2008 interview:

"The challenge for senior managers is to get over what we call the ‘fear
factor’ and tune out the naysayers in their organisations who are resisting Web
2.0 tools at the workplace because they feel threatened by them. When open,
networked communications enter corporate bureaucracies – especially on blogs
and wikis – a lot of people feel threatened because they have been in
gatekeeper positions controlling information. They don’t like open
communication."

This is as much a matter of organizational culture as it is about
risk.  Many of today’s decision makers
began their careers in an era where the mantra was controlling the message and
some have not yet moved on from that position. 
These people can represent unmovable obstacles preventing new
technologies from being integrated into community engagement programs.

But Web2.0 has already taken away the ability to effectively
control the message[iii]
whether you choose to embrace it or not. 
The fact is that you can and will be criticized online regardless of
whether you stick your head in the sand and ignore it or choose to manage
it. 

If evidence is needed of this loss of control visit www.qantassucksworld.com or
http://councilgripe.com or one of
countless other sites that aim slings and arrows at large institutions.  These sites are easy to set up, involve
little or no legal risk for their instigators, are next to impossible to shut
down and, thanks to the power of Google, are very easy to find.  

Without proactive measures on the organisation’s part[iv],
these ‘sucks’ sites can become a home, not just for the die-hard minority who
are determined to hate your business what ever you do, they also become a
destination for the ordinary punters who want to go somewhere to get advice and
assistance. 

This is happening to countless public and private sector
organisations around the world[v].  How do we deal with it?  Simple – engage. Having an online presence
that you control (though I use the term control loosely) is the way
organizations will learn to manage the risks posed by the openness of the Web.
This even has a name – online reputation management[vi].

If public and private sector organisations have sites where
stakeholders and customers can come and have a dialogue both with the
organisation and each other then the organization has nothing to fear from the
web. In fact it can drive significant and positive change both in terms of
external reputation and internal culture.

Having said this we do
not advocate just jumping on the latest online bandwagon and hoping for the
best. There are a number of sensible precautions you should take as part of any
online engagement.

Tools

Firstly you will need to select your online tool or platform[vii].
Think about the group you are targeting, the purpose of the interaction and
what is the easiest tool for them to use to talk with you.  Use a platform designed specifically for the
proposed purpose so you get a meaningful result. You will need to monitor,
moderate and report on your community engagement.  Importantly, you need accurate and meaningful
statistics on the behaviour of people when they visit your site.  Some of the most meaningful results of online
engagement come not just from comments, but also from analysis of the behaviour
of those who choose not to.

Anonymity

In the online world, the quality of the ideas is more important
than the identity of the person submitting them.  We would recommend that you allow users to be
anonymous.  The potential for damage
being done by cyber bullying is effectively mitigated by anonymity; responses
to forum comments in your name feel very personal, but a distance is created if
you write as Donald Duck.  Anonymity is
also a great leveler – people are judged on their ideas alone.  At many public meetings we have observed
people using their social and physical stature as a battering ram to win
debates.  In an online debate these
trappings are left at the door. 

Managing
trolls and disruption

Clearly stated rules of engagement are key to minimising
disruption.  You will need moderation to
ensure that the discussion stays clean, safe and relevant.  Moderation should be impartial and
demonstrably independent.  It also needs
to continue outside business hours. 
Ensure that the rules are clearly stated before the process commences
and stick to them, as your credibility is at stake. Whatever you do don’t
remove comments that comply with the rules even if they are uncomfortable for
you. 

Bang the Table has managed over 100 consultations and in that time
we have only seen one serious instance of people attempting to corrupt a
process with multiple logins.  This was
easily detected and dealt with.  However,
it is something that people worry about, so for the integrity of the process it
is important to manage this risk and to be seen to do so.  This can be done as part of the moderation
process when your system tracks IP and email addresses. 

Of course no system of weeding out those who want to cheat the
process is foolproof but it’s worth pointing out that all forms of engagement
can be corrupted. People get bussed into public meetings, form letters get sent
in as submissions. The real protection is in the way you interpret the results.  Don’t just count the number of comments for
and against a proposal – look for new ideas and issues and take the overall
community temperature and you really cannot get into trouble.  Giving people a chance to have their say and
to get involved builds community confidence in your decision-making
processes.  

Good publicity for your site is also a very effective protection
from individuals or small groups who want to skew your results.  The more successful you are at getting the
word out to people about their opportunity to have a say, the harder it is for
any group to wield a disproportionate influence. The best form of publicity
depends on your target audience but in our experience traditional media is
usually the best way to get the word out.  
Local radio and newspapers get directly to your target audience in a way
that it is hard to do online unless you are specifically targeting high web
usage individuals.  Even then you may
find a lack of suitable points of aggregation for local content available to
you online[viii].

Give
good guidance to staff

Create some guidelines for your staff so it is clear when and how
online tools should be used.  There are
some great examples already available,[ix]
so you won’t need to start from scratch.

Provide
alternatives

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, don’t assume you can
engage your entire community online.  You
cannot.  Don’t let a conversion to web
2.0 disenfranchise those who would prefer to speak with you by other
means.  There will always be some groups
in society who want to engage face to face or by snail mail and to remove that
opportunity would be a backward step. Online engagement should be an addendum
to, not a replacement for, your traditional community engagement activities.

If you follow these basic tips and allow your community the
opportunity to engage with you online then you can effectively manage most of
the risks posed to your organization by the web.  The alternative is to hold out a little
longer, but before long the community will come to view those who do not engage
online with justified suspicion.  "Do
they really care what we think?


[i] http://www.onlinecommunityconsultation.com/2009/04/why-government-organisations-should-be.html

[ii]http://www.insead.edu/alumni/newsletters/December2008/ThrowingSheepintheBoardroominterview.htm

[iii] http://sparksheet.com/who-controls-your-message/

[iv] http://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/18/30122.html

[v]http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/60685/gripe_sites_when_something_sucks_post.html?cat=9

[vi] http://www.toprankblog.com/2007/03/basics-of-online-reputation-management/

[vii] http://www.onlinecommunityconsultation.com/search/label/online%20tools

[viii] http://www.onlinecommunityconsultation.com/2009/05/place-based-social-networks.html

[ix] http://www.usa.gov/webcontent/technology/blogs.shtml

http://www.mosman.nsw.gov.au/web/external/twitter

http://socialmediatoday.com/SMC/108483

http://blogs.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/digitalengagement/[ix]

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