Netroots Nation Reportback: Labor in the House!

It was another great Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis, and like many of you, I’m still digesting. As someone a little bit responsible for sending folks there (three folks won a free registration at our last big event!) it’s important to do a little public evaluation.

Rob Callaghan, Ethan Rips and Harry Waisbren - the winners of Org 2.0's Netroots Nation attendance raffle

1. Netroots Nation is a labor event, full stop. If twelve of the top eighteen sponsors were corporations, it would be a corporate event. But it was labor: AFL-CIO, Working America, Change to Win, SEIU, UFT, NEA, UFCW, even the firefighters, who did seem a little bit like fish out of water*. So on behalf of the netroots, THANK YOU.

2. Netroots Nation is home to a lot of self-organized liberals and Democrats who often represent a kind of loyal opposition to whatever “the” Democrats are up to in DC. It makes sense that Labor, that poor bride who keeps getting stranded at the altar while her groom is off having sex with corporations in the dressing room, should make common cause with us. But we can still ask: just how serious is labor about dating the netroots, as opposed to purchasing some seasonal influence? I want unions to love us for our free-wheeling exuberance, critical thinking and free-agent empowerment. Not just for political influence that on rare occasions result in some electoral or electoral victory.

3. At the labor strategy session, I heard it explained that some years ago, unions invested big in organizing – but were unable to staunch the loss of members, especially in the private sector. So they went big on political spending, going all out for Democratic victories in hopes of passing EFCA.

Or at least getting a little bit of love now and then. Right now is an interesting moment: labor is organizing, but not focused on new member organizing. Labor is doing politics, but not necessarily in close cooperation with the official Democrats. Is this a fully articulated strategy we can learn from and follow, or evidence that labor strategists are figuring things out as we

go along? (It can’t be just Stephen Lerner talking openly about labor strategy these days, right?)

4. This goes hand in hand with the excellent session about Wisconsin. One of AFSCME’s senior political strategists said something like “as a result of Wisconsin, we really understand the importance of new media. And over the next year, you’ll see that manifested in how we do things.” What I should have asked as a follow up question is “What kind of changes will we be seeing? What new combination of job descriptions, training, new hires, shifting budgets and consultant contracts can we look forward to?”

5. Labor had many tables/booths in display. I visited all of them and found no job descriptions related to online organizing or new media campaigning. That said, I know from that many unions ARE trying to fill those jobs. Next year, let’s make sure that the booths of unions that are hiring staff have some information about their job openings. It’s the perfect captive audience for recruitment.

6. Where is the labor netroots? Union members who blog, as opposed to a) bloggers who enjoy labor support, and b) staff at unions who blog? Some members of teachers unions who blog were in attendance and on (really good) panels but overall there were not many rank and file members who blog or use social media at the conference. I imagine that lack of funds to attend the conference might be the reason why. NN does a great job of offering scholarships but it would be a good idea for more of the unions that send staff to NN to also send their union members who blog.

7. Netroots Nation staff did what they could to promote attendance among Minneapolis and Minnesota union locals. That said, I spoke to a handful of union members in attendance who came because they asked/demanded to go, but who never saw anything from their International about Netroots Nation. Part of me wonders if a $10k sponsorship and the expense of staffing a booth in the exhibition hall wouldn’t have been better served by sending an additional 10-15 union members to attend the training sessions (organized by Democracy for America) and schmoozing with union staff from across the country.

The next conference will be held in Providence, RI, easy traveling distance from New York, Boston and Philadelphia, all big union cities. So will we see a dozen locals send two people each from those areas? And staff from 5-6 state labor federations? And Labor Councils? Maybe consultants from the strategic media firms that (sometimes) pretend to be experts in online communications? Let’s not leave that up to the powers that be.

If you think your union should be doing better at online organizing, consider using this as your check list for promoting more, and more effective labor participation at Netroots Nation:

  • Request that your local’s magazine/newspaper/website features a story about unions at Netroots Nation.
  • If your International was a sponsor in 2011, remind them to put something in about the upcoming conference in Providence next spring.
  • Sign up now, pay the super-inexpensive $195 early bird registration fee. If your union won’t pay your way, file for the vacation days now – and signal your boss about the importance of Netroots Nation.
  • Ask your union to purchase a block of tickets now, even before it’s clear who would actually go.
  • Let’s ask Netroots Nation to post data about how many trade unionists attended, and make it a goal to exceed that number in 2012.
  • Start thinking now about sessions that appeal to a labor audience in particular. Not just on the issues, but training relevant to your own work as a trade unionist. Why not sessions on new member organizing, blogging for union staff/members, or setting the labor agenda from below?

Got any other bright ideas? Let’s hear ‘em. If you hear of any posts about labor at Netroots Nation – please let me know or link below.


We Don’ Need No Stinkin’ Social Media Experts

A few days ago Peter Shankman wrote a provocative post about why one should never hire a “Social Media Expert”. His main point is that

“Social media is just another facet of marketing and customer service. Say it with me. Repeat it until you know it by heart. Bind it as a sign upon your hands and upon thy gates. Social media, by itself, will not help you.”

This was posted on ProgressivExchange and attracted a more than usual amount of attention. A fair number of “social media experts” are on that list. But it’s a fair debate: do we need social media experts in the nonprofit/organizing/campaign space? When? How?

Nonprofit and political communication staff can’t be assumed to know when or how to use social media, online ads, online video, a microsite, or any other kind of nontraditional, digital strategy. I’ve met them. Here are four typical responses from insufficiently skilled communicators:

  1. Hire a trusted consulting firm (who might be clueless as well) and pay them loads of money for advice one could have Googled and execution that a junior staffer could have done – for a whole lot less.
  2. Reject unfamiliar methodologies.
  3. Encourage staff to present digital strategies, but then reject them, so they can take credit for internal crowd-sourcing while still following (2) above.
  4. Read up on the literature and try their best, but since they only have 100 hours doing this ‘stuff’ they combine relative ignorance with alpha male self-confidence, wasting time and money as they themselves seek to master digital strategy on the fly, ensuring that the organization only advances as fast as they can acquire new skills and insights. (In other words, slowly and inefficiently!)

None of these four options are indefensible. They just aren’t as good as what real leaders do. Here are the alternatives:

  1. Look for a consulting firm or consultant who really has expertise in digital strategy, and learn how to tell the difference between those who get this field and those that don’t, between the traditional strategic PR and media consulting and the Fission/Rad Campaigns of the world. It ain’t the same thing, not by a long shot.
  2. Cultivate a digital strategist internally from your board or a staff member and cede power to them over their areas of expertise. Acquirethe skill of managing an expert, as you would with an attorney or accountant, instead of arrogantly deciding to become that kind of expert yourself. (Arrogant = because you aren’t actually doing to spend the time it takes.)
  3. Crowdsource questions about strategy only if you or someone else in the room has the expertise to evaluate them properly. Absent that element, why waste everyone’s time?
  4. By all means, build your own expertise in digital strategy. Just try and remember the 10,000 hours rule. Someone who has spent five years doing this will know more than you. And after five years, they will have ten years, so even if you changed your career to become a digital strategist, they still might have something to teach you. Be humble and aware of your core competencies, use experts – including social media consultants – judiciously. Don’t force your entire organization to be as slow as you might be.

After sending a version of this response to the list, a bunch of folks wrote to me appreciating how these approaches are laid out. What do you think?

Before you answer, consider viewing this oldie but a goodie about those damn social media experts:

Strategic Plannery and Organizational Changeyness

I’ve been reading a lot about strategic planning and organizational change lately. Never mind that these topics resonate with me; something bigger is going on. The recent Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) featured Dan Heath, one of the authors of Switch, a book devoted to strategies for organizational change. While just a few years ago there were no workshops on this topic at the NTC, in 2011e there were at least four. Here’s my two cents: It’s about fucking time.

In the prehistory before I became a full time consultant (nptechery), I worked for a few organizations while they were engaging other consultants to lead strategic planning processes. Having read books on leadership, served as a member of a nonprofit board, and been executive director of a nonprofit, I was thrilled at all the signs of something happening: surveys, interviews, group meetings, ED promises, new committees, Harvard Business Review articles photocopied and left on my desk… Mmm, tasty!

What I realize today, and with the benefit of hindsight, is that very little was what it seemed. The leaders of one organization were using the strategic planning process to help push the COO gently out the door. The expression on her face at those group sessions on ‘Key Result Areas’ wasn’t concentration, as I surmised. It was resentment or ill-concealed rage. They big shots did a good job of mining the consultants for time management tools, while never believing for a second the garbage about everyone having a voice. It turns out that the verb ‘listening’ also refers to a soul-crushing process of pretending to care while wasting employees’ time. Who knew?

Quite a few people knew. That’s why there is so much literature on strategic planning and organizational change. It’s the ‘dieting’ book shelf of the nonprofit world.

I remember another senior staff meeting at this other job. We had these great phone calls with consultants, and then four of them showed up at a senior staff meeting to explain all about the process the organization would undergo. They were never heard from again, and within a year more than half the people in that room weren’t working there any longer. What happened? My unconfirmed theory is that there were so many obvious management problems that some funders and board members forced the director to ‘do something.’ And this lasted for as long as it took for the director to claim that he gave it a try. (Most memorable quote: “stop being so collaborative.”)

No, Really…

All organizations have to contend with gaps between status power and expertise. At some point, the best solutions or insights come from those with less power. Not because power makes you soft – though this does happen. It’s because the less power you have the more likely you are to specialize in tasks that the folks upstairs are committing the hours to learning. That’s why bosses have been known to ask secretaries to print all their emails out.Not learning how to use email is, in spite of it all, a mark of high status.

A consultant with McKinsey once told me the secret of her work: to ask junior staff for advice, select the best bits, and charge up the wazoo for a nifty report recycling those ideas in jargonese. Imagine a world where ideas from junior staff travel effortlessly up the chain of command, only to be rewarded with acceptance and recognition on a case by case basis. Now forget that world, because it will only drive you crazy while living in this one.

A better idea is to read Switch If you haven’t already. This amazingly easy read assumes the reader does not have enough power to change things coercively, by dangling rewards and punishments. Like me, you’ll have to rely on friendly persuasion strategies and tactics. The time for telling consultants what you think so they can steal your ideas is over. Its now time for the subtle manipulation of your colleagues and bosses while reminding yourself that your current job is just a stepping stone on the way to building a personal brand. And that you might just be someone else’s stepping stone as well.

But seriously. The current wave of interest sweeping the nptechie world for all things strategic and change-y is a good thing. After all, change is too important to be left in the hands of the executive directors, board members and consultants. Developing a shared language about these matters is key to sharing ownership, all of us together, in the success of our projects and missions. Its about getting the best price in exchange for your ‘buy-in.’

Now that’s change you can believe in.