Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Forcing Change With Social Media

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on January 8, 2014

RespectSocial media is the bogeyman of large organizations, corporations, and governments the world over. I’ve heard disparaging remarks about social media throughout the drowning prevention community. Frustration, anger, concern, or a cool disdain questioning whether social media serves any real purpose – all fueled by a desire to control the medium or discredit the voices that dominate the field. I suspect that what the nay-sayers most feel is threatened. Threatened because the old way of being successful or influential is wobbling, if not actually toppling. Some of the frustration is warranted, some is not. Today I will be looking at the criticisms levied against social media and talking about the new responsibilities that social media brings.

Never in history has there been a tool that organizes the masses more effectively, that makes it possible for one small voice to become the voice of many, and to ‘force’ change. Of course those in power often deny the reason behind the change. The food industry in the U.S. is pulling questionable chemicals and dyes following social media pressure, but swears they were planning on making the changes anyway, not influenced by the public in any way.  Unlikely.  The timing is suspicious and they doth protest too much, given that 55 million people have signed Change.org petitions (among other online petitions), achieving success across a wide range of issues.

Social media is reversing the trend of top-down power and replacing it with a conversation between equal partners.

I’ve written extensively about the power of social media and doing social media well, with a goal of increasing acceptance of social media to further the cause of drowning prevention. The responsibility of social media goes both ways. I remain firmly convinced that social media is a tool we need to use effectively if we are going to engage the public, communicate with the public (and each other), and change attitudes towards, and behavior around, water, but it has to be done well.

If we are going to be effective with social media, we need to look at both sides of the story. Let’s look at some of the main criticisms against social media:

Issue: “It can be an easy forum for people to have shots at other people or organizations without any supporting evidence or even without any suggested solutions”

True. It is easy for someone who is hidden to take pot shots or hurl accusations with no real fear of retaliation. When I was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth, people actually talked. We even saw each other. We didn’t text, IM, send e-mails or even fax or use FedEx (except in truly urgent cases). Either the technology didn’t exist or it was expensive. Back then, the preferred method of avoiding confrontation and tough conversations was leaving a voice mail when you knew the person was away from the phone, because no one had a cell phone. There is a lot to be said for face-to-face conversations. The intent of face-to-face messages is more clearly understood. One study indicated that up to 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues, meaning everything but the words, including facial expressions or voice quality.  The problem is, it just isn’t realistic to have only face-to-face conversations in a rapidly changing and global economy.

True communication goes both ways, not just being understood or stating your views in a vacuum, but also being appropriate and proactive, of actually having a conversation. The biggest danger of social media, or even old-fashioned email, is that when you can’t see the actual person you are communicating with it’s easy to be hurtful, hateful, ignorant or damaging.  You have lost the visual cues which trigger morals and social niceties.  It’s easy to dismiss or destroy an idea, but when the real loser is all the children who keep drowning, we can’t afford to hide and only snipe, but we also can’t afford to just assume we know best, without challenge.  I think part of the issue the ‘establishment’ has with social media is that they are used to handing down dictates – this is the law, the rules, the way things should be done.  They aren’t used to public feedback at this level, or having their competence and power questioned.  Social media means that the public can talk back, but it’s still an awkward conversation because the shift of power is still unstable, it’s in flux.

Solution: For everyone, commit to being responsible and respectful. There are too few of us in the drowning prevention field to shoot each other. If you couldn’t say it to someone’s face, you shouldn’t say it in social media. If you are an organization or leader, be prepared to have the public, or individuals, push back. And remember, if you can’t respond intelligently other than saying ‘because I said so’, maybe you need to take a hard look at the agenda you are pushing, maybe it was created in a vacuum or isn’t as relevant as you thought it was.

Issue: “Social media’s constant need for content, and reinforcing and building connections/community risks wiping away past successes.”

It is true that with the deluge of information that is now available, it is even harder to sift through and find information of quality and true worth. It is equally true that to be successful in social media you have to be constantly engaged and producing, which can lead to a bunch of garbage. Content may be king, but if it’s not done well it is more a case that the emperor has no clothes. If you are engaging in social media – as an individual or an organization, commit to quality, not just quantity. It takes time to do social media well, and it takes 3-5 years of consistent, quality, daily interaction to build an audience, but that audience will only follow you if you are producing information that people value.

Solution: If you have success stories you need to be sharing them, in every format of social media and traditional media, in different ways and targeting different audiences – and ENGAGE the public. When you have something amazing to share, be prepared for feedback and criticism, and publicly, politely and professionally engage in debate, show your credentials, your methodology, your results, discuss the issues and the weaknesses in your approach. And listen. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your study, your program, your writing – for it to have real-life value it also has to survive real-life scrutiny. If you engage your peers and your public effectively, if you treat them with the same respect you wish to receive, you will not only see more success, you will convert influential spokespeople to push your agenda, because everyone wants to back a winner and everyone is looking for good content.

Social media is at an awkward stage. It is like a gangly preteen – testing the power, pushing the limits, high on hormones and drugged with sudden freedom. But like dealing with a preteen, if you act like the adult, understanding you can no longer just pass down the law without challenge, but still have the ultimate power to frame the discussion, to guide the conversation, to lead by example of polite, professional debate, then social media (and your preteen) will become a strong contributing member of our society.

The choice is yours – do you ride the beast and form it into something which benefits society or do you fight and ultimately lose?

If you think we need to ride the beast, click here to tweet ‘Drowning Prevention needs to become a leader in social media http://bit.ly/K6pFmw @rebeccasavekids #stopdrowning’

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