A Placemaking Journal

Old School Strategies for Connectivity (Hint: Batteries not required)

For years, I’ve been jotting down inverse relationships as they crop up in my professional and personal life. Here, for instance, is one from my previous career as a journalist:

The quality of reporting at any event is inversely proportional to the number of reporters covering it. Think Super Bowls, political conventions and the birth of a royal baby.

And here’s one closer to home for those of us making our livings in community planning and development: The chances for achieving meaningful results for a controversial project are inversely proportional to the degree to which the client expects help from web-enabled social networking.

Counting on Twitter, Facebook and all the other web-enabled applications to do the heavy lifting of consensus-building is an act of desperation. As every PR pro knows, most issues clients think of as communications problems are really management problems. Or more precisely: Getting-stuff-done problems. There’s a gap between what customers or citizens are encouraged to expect and what they see a company or government delivering. The wider the gap, the higher the levels of distrust and cynicism and the tougher the “communication problem.”

I banged away on this drum in a March, 2011 blog post. And Scott Doyon has come at the topic from several angles here, here and here. Now, it’s becoming even more clear that what we thought would make everything better is making a lot of stuff worse. Web-enabled tools — especially social networking tools — have broken down barriers to entry in the communications business. Everybody is a potential reporter, editor, publisher and filmmaker. And every idea, good or bad, has an instant platform.

Means and ends

Lots of us fret about the toll 24-hour digital connectivity is having on productivity at work and relationships at home. Back in 2010 a New York Times blog post reported that 30 percent of those under 45, a demographic slice likely to be early adopters of technology, said that “use of these devices made it harder to focus.” Smaller but worrisome percentages of poll respondents reported that time online was detracting from time with spouses and children. (You can read about the year-long disconnection experiment of Paul Miller, a writer for The Verge, here).

But I’m less concerned about personal adaptations to the challenges of being online all the time than I am about the implications of getting stuff done for communities, towns and regions.

Our PlaceMakers firm helped pioneer the use of web tools and social networking in support of consensus-driven community development. We promote and sell those services. But we’ve never considered them anything other than tools in a toolbox of methods to clarify what a community promises itself and to grease the wheels to deliver those promises.

All the stuff in between — including rounding up stakeholders, getting their input, collecting baseline data, refining draft versions of plans, dutifully reporting everything in print and digital media — are means in service to the ends of implementation. But increasingly we’re seeing communities faced with pushback from digitally-armed dissidents lose sight of what should be their principal goals. They’re overinvesting in cover-their-butt processes that are easy to quantify (bodies at a meeting, hits on web pages and online surveys), so that when projects fall short of implementation they imagine themselves indemnified against accountability. It never works over the long haul. And the long haul is getting shorter.

In olden days, when information passed at less-than-gigs-per-second velocity and access to the means of production and distribution barred everyone but millionaires from controlling messaging, the delay between screw ups and the recognition of screw-ups allowed for damage control and image repair. Nowadays, in a matter of seconds, anybody with smart phone can connect with anyone similarly predisposed worldwide to fan fires of discontent.

An unlevel playing field

What makes this particularly hard on institutions like corporations and governments is that they’re organized in ways that make it all but impossible to adapt. By the time they realize they’re threatened, they’ve already lost control of the message, and their response is slowed even more by their need to huddle with lawyers and PR types before they can get into a discussion that’s racing ahead without them.

Consider the problem of United Airlines when this youtube parody hit:

Or even better, when a clever guy created a Twitter parody account that manipulated even social network users for fun (Thanks Buzzfeed):


When we have governments as clients, every email exchange we have with staff has that little reminder at the bottom of their messages that content can become evidence in the event of litigation or future audits. Which puts us on notice to be careful about frank, open-ended discussions, the kind that would be the most helpful were we talking in person. So not only are social networking antagonists distancing themselves from the institutions they target at Webworld’s warp speed, they have the additional advantage of release from the discipline and the communications protocols that anchor institutions to a pre-computer era.

“God has given me a great, beautiful funnel through which angry people flow in the worst possible mood,” said the guy behind the parody United Airlanes Twitter effort.

How do you handle a communications problem like that?

Back to the business of getting things done

The answer is to avoid over-dependence on systems you can’t rely on. You have to build and maintain a redundant communications infrastructure, a support system of satisfied customers. Some may even be tweeters and bloggers when you need them. But strategies should be based on the old-school version of round-the-clock, person-to-person outreach and communications:

Understand your customers and what they most value. Declare accountability for delivering it. Organize your systems to do what you promise. Do it all in a time frame that makes it easy for people to directly connect promise and delivery. Then repeat forever.

“Nothing in the long run can overcome a deficit of accomplishment,” wrote Linda A. Hill and Wallace Brett Donham in a Much, 2012 Harvard Business Review blog post.

Hardly a radical idea. But just because everybody knows this is the way to do business, that doesn’t mean everybody is good at it. Most businesses flunk the survivability test a few years from start up. And only a handful of survivors hang around for a generation without folding, merging or being bought out.

Governments may have access to revenues and mandating powers that temporarily mask incompetence and give them do-over opportunities denied private enterprise. But if they’re to hold onto their advantages, they have to satisfy customers as well. That’s especially true now, when so many governments and companies have dug such deep holes of mistrust within and without their organizations and are so easily assaulted via social networking.

Getting back to getting things done requires commitments of resources in a time of cutbacks. It means inspiring staff who’ve been demoralized by being held accountable for things they can’t control. And it demands a conversation with customers and citizens that can be transferred to the web only after you’ve proved you’re listening by the way you respond.

An organization that has demonstrated reliability and earned trust can leverage all of Webworld to support its relationships with customers. But one that hopes to fix what’s wrong with a Twitter account is asking for trouble.

Ben Brown

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