Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner. Part one

A senior manager in cultural relations? Some thoughts on getting to grips with social media.

Even if so far you have resisted the temptation to create a naff user name and input an instantly forgotten password to a website that you suspect you’ll never visit again, there’s no getting away from this one fact: you’re going to have to get to grips with social media at some stage between now and retirement. I hope that what follows might help you to confirm in your own mind why this is worth doing.
First of all, I should say that this is not a blog post, rather it is more of a short lecture delivered electronically in three parts. That is another way of saying that it is long, I suppose, but it is also an attempt to challenge the already well-entrenched misconceptions of what social media is. Getting beyond these is an important part of the process in understanding its potential.
I’m going to talk about why social media is important for cultural relations organisations, why it is difficult but can’t be ignored and I’ll finish by looking at how its value lies beyond a simple numbers game.

‘Media’ and ‘Social’ were always part of cultural relations

Here’s what cultural relations activity involves and always has done:

Media: We bring our target audiences together to watch films, listen to music or to people talking about ideas and events, they read articles and fiction, look at photographs, appreciate design, painting and sculpture, they might attend our exhibitions, conferences, classes and workshops or even play sport or video games together.

Social: Then they talk to each other about it, give opinions, disagree, agree, argue, reach conclusions and finally, arrange to speak again (or not), and if we are successful, keep in touch and even collaborate.

It’s difficult to conceive of any cultural relations strategy that doesn’t make use of media to convey messages about the achievements and values of the groups involved and rely on social interaction to build close personal ties. In fact the combination of socialising- face to face networking- and the use of media -press releases, films, music, publications, exhibitions- have been a staple of cultural relations for years and have often taken place at the same time and been mutually supporting.

Doing this online is surely a logical next step.

Social media: high barriers to entry for the organisation

So why then has there been reluctance from some practitioners to embrace online social media as a key component of their cultural relations work?

Perhaps it is because they don’t really see it in these terms. Sadly, the labels internet, website and ICT are too often used to confusingly describe social media activity. These are loaded words, implying as they do to some people, a complex undertaking that is beyond the skills of anyone except those with a certain degree of technical literacy.

But the truth is that not investing in social media, not taking the time to understand and not participating is like turning down invitation and after invitation to cultural events. It is the equivalent of staying at your desk and then going home at the end of the working day rather than attending conferences, seminars, receptions, openings, and parties.

That might seem an exaggeration- after all, not everyone is online and certainly most of the older influencers and decision makers in society are not regular users of social media tools. This is true perhaps. But the emerging generation of decision makers and influencers most definitely are using social media - so online socialising and the use of online content among this successor group are taking place right now. By the time you retire, they will be well on their way to forming a new generation of leaders heavily influenced by online content and interaction along the way.
Sorry to say this but part of the problem with cultural relations organisations making effective use of social media lies in seniority and organisational hierarchy. In every country where large cultural relations agencies operate, the 20 to 30-something future leaders of that country are socially active online and increasingly consuming media online. But the senior managers of the cultural relations agencies are not of that generation-they either don’t see these conversations or they are not able or inclined to fully participate. And in a hierarchical organisation, delegating very significant and meaningful activity like this to younger staff does not come naturally.

Another problem is perceived cost and tangible benefits. If the latter are measured in the short term as a set of numbers- traffic is the most convenient way to evaluate social media- then it is often easy to discount the impact of projects where social media is involved. Getting those fabled millions of hits is actually a very difficult and expensive process.
I could go on but the point is that doing social media well, as many organisations have discovered, is not easy. Organisations are just not set up for it and the barriers to effective entry are actually quite high.

Cultural relations: low barriers to entry for new organisations

If it is difficult for established organisations to use social media, paradoxically, social media has made it an increasingly simple matter for others to enter the cultural relations industry. Thanks to the ease with which online communities can be set up and are able to connect with each other, organisations, groups and individuals are now quite capable of participating in cultural relations independently of government agencies.

It’s true that friendship societies and twinning associations thrived without the involvement of cultural relations agencies long before the internet was created, but there’s no doubt that it is now far easier to find like-minded communities and share content and interact with them online. In theory, any civil society group can locate and build links with its analogues overseas.
Media companies too, are hosting intercultural dialogue. This occurs as an inevitable part of the commenting that goes on around their content- You Tube and the Guardian are just two examples of places where you can easily find people of different cultures communicating, although with often questionable outcomes.

The opportunities for established cultural relations players

This brings me to the opportunities for the established players in cultural relations: despite the problems they face in fully embracing the potential of social media, there is clearly a role for them to play in raising the bar when it comes to online interaction between different cultures.

Exactly how this can be done is a little complex to go into here and needs to be the subject of another post (sorry, mini-lecture), but broadly it can be summarised as follows:

1. How they can integrate their own social media activity into their existing work
2. How they can use other people’s social media activity to add value to their own work.
3. How they can use their physical presence and in-country networks to add value to the social media work of others.

In delivering these three objectives, established cultural relations agencies have two great strengths (and others, I’m sure). The first is their long experience in managing intercultural dialogue and mediating between peoples of different cultures. The second is the physical, boots-on-the-ground infrastructure, which uniquely positions them to fulfil the aspirations that people who engage online often have: to meet face to face.

A bewildering array of new partners, tools and communities

The landscape comprising potential partners, the tools to create and manage dialogue, and the communities who are ready to participate, are still a foreign country to many cultural relations practitioners. Sadly, a lot of senior managers who understand the potential of social media still find themselves in a position akin to arriving in a country with no induction, unable to speak the language and with no one available to show them around the new city. Knowledge is needed in addition to understanding. This has significant implications for the development of senior staff.

Inevitably, false expectations arise: it is assumed that all social media will go viral and reach millions, that it needs to take place on Facebook, You Tube or similar. Actually, a lot of social media work will make use of well known websites and communities but a lot of it will also involve specialist tools that bring more subtle outcomes that can’t be measured simply by hits and page impressions.

In the next post, we'll look at how one such specialist tool, Yoosk, can bring some quite distinct outcomes through innovative approaches to online dialogue.

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