Does Social Media Belong in the Boardroom?
By: Margaret Loftus
In the annals of social media missteps, the content of Caleb McNiece's tweet during an executive council meeting of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) was hardly earth shattering.
In his enthusiasm, McNiece, the group's social media chair, snapped a photo of a revised mission statement that the council's members had spent hours hammering out and, with a tap of his thumb, launched it into the Twitterverse.
The move was innocent enough. Its timing, however—ahead of the document's final approval—raised a red flag for Maggie McGary, former online community and social media manager for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a professional association for audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists, and NSSHLA's parent organization. "We should probably address this for future precedents," she noted to the group's top brass after catching the post in her Twitter feed.
Increasingly, association executives are finding themselves navigating the uncharted territory of social-media-meets-boardroom snafus. While they may have made peace with Facebook, Twitter, and other networking sites as a means to promote membership, managing it in the context of board meetings—where sensitive subjects such as budgets, staff, and forecasts are discussed—is another story.
Complicating the issue is that the closed-door policies that often apply to board meetings conflict with the transparency associations constantly strive to maintain with their members.
"A lot of associations have told themselves they don't have to worry about it," says McGary. "But whether it's today or a couple years from now, [they] need to address it so there are guidelines to follow."
David Nour, an association growth strategist and author of Return on Impact: Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships (Association Management Press, 2011), says forward-thinking associations should have a social strategy, both offensive and defensive, "to protect their brands, repute, and dissemination of sensitive information." Besides, he says, "Facebook is more than just a way to keep up with your teenage daughters."
Make a Plan, Stick to It
Not wanting to impinge on the NSSLHA's autonomy, ASHA left any new social media policymaking up to the students. "It was really an instance of the students working in a very different way than the way we traditionally work," says Vicki Deal-Williams, CAE, who, as the parent group's chief staff officer for multicultural affairs, oversees the student group. "So it was still the students' discretion to determine if and how they wanted to establish a policy."
NSSLHA is now working on refining its social media protocol. "We're trying to use social media more to promote advocacy, so we have a constant flow of information," says NSSLHA President Renee Utianski. "In this instance, we had a board member who was a little too free-flowing. We didn't see it as foul play, but we saw it as a potential future problem."
As a result, the group hopes to implement a stricter policy that it plans to finalize at its next meeting. It has outlined scenarios in which council members should think twice about sharing via social media. It's still a work in progress, says Utianski, but it might involve closing some parts of meetings. "We feel a responsibility to our members to voice their interest [in meetings], but there are some parts that are closed, like voting on grant submissions."
Other conflicts haven't been so congenial.
Last summer in Las Vegas, a student journalist was barred from an open board meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists at the Unity conference—the annual gathering of minority journalist associations—for live-tweeting the event. The president cited an NAHJ policy approved in 2010 that banned press coverage, prompting complaints from some members that the leadership lacked transparency. The move sparked a larger debate on social media networks, not only about the inner workings and politics of the NAHJ board, but also the larger context, and irony, of a journalist blocked from covering the work of a journalist organization.
Former NAHJ President Rafael Olmeda acknowledged the challenges of governing in the age of social networking but called for the board to repeal the ban, writing on his blog, "I understand that this may conflict with the principle of the board speaking with one voice, but blocking such communication conflicts with a greater principle in my eyes. Board members are elected by the association's membership and are entitled to communicate with members any way they see fit, including by blogging, tweeting, using Facebook, or talking to reporters."
Digital Generation Gap?
Both conflicts were driven by so-called digital natives—twenty-somethings for whom tweeting and social networking are second nature—and underscore the need for proactive policies as millennials and gen Y-ers climb the ladders of the association boardroom. "It was very apparent to us that there's a different way students communicate than more seasoned professionals," says Deal-Williams.
Utianski acknowledges the generation gap but takes a tempered approach to what is and isn't acceptable to discuss within the confines of a board meeting. "We are products of the 21st century," she says. "We do think there's a right to have this information, but there is a time and place for which it's appropriate. It's not necessarily if the information will be shared, but it's when and how."
Nour's thoughts about the subject are less nuanced. "Board meetings should be closed, announced as such, and thus inappropriate to tweet from within," he says. "It's the responsibility of the association chair or executive director to announce that from the onset." Aside from stemming leaks, he says, a closed meeting fosters a candid dialogue about challenges and opportunities.
What about the inevitable pushback? Positioning is everything. Nour recommends using social media to solicit comments on the topics and agenda of a meeting before the event (see "A Social Media Guide to Board Meetings" sidebar).
As long as members and interested parties believe they have a voice in the meeting—even if they cannot use social media during the event itself—the number of complaints should fade. From there, Nour suggests sharing a summary of the meeting, noting that the association's leadership can "keep those interested parties engaged."
And engagement, after all, is a pillar of every association.
Margaret Loftus is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler and has written for U.S. News & World Report, Boston Globe, and Salon.com.