Navigating Social Media Challenges with Small Museums: Be Proactive, not Reactive

Vol. 8 No. 4

Katherine E. Lewis is Vice Chair of the ABA Section of Science & Technology Law’s Museum Law Committee and practices in New York, NY. Special thanks to Gil Whittemore for his encouragement and support, and Alyssa Reiner, an attorney at the Smithsonian Institution, Office of Contracting, for her insights on social media challenges.

More and more these days, the virtual storefront is eclipsing the physical: don’t let your small museum client get lost in the shuffle by being unprepared to meet these challenges.

Often when advising small organizations, whether small museums, nonprofit cultural organizations, or start-up businesses, attorneys offer more than just legal advice. We become sounding boards for business and legal considerations alike. The small museum often has limited resources and is particularly susceptible to financial and staff weaknesses that make managing the organization a challenge and allocating resources to explore and leverage web-based tools even more so.

This article delves into business and legal considerations involved in assisting your small museum clients as they venture into the big world of social media: how to choose how best to engage it and how to avoid common legal pitfalls.

Museums are an excellent focus for this discussion because, as cultural institutions, their outreach and educational missions make social media particularly beneficial to the organization and the public alike. Even if a museum chooses not to use social media, it is still wise to be knowledgeable about the subject in order to respond responsibly and effectively to staff and audience, as both groups will likely be involved in social media themselves, which may impact the museum regardless. For example, a disgruntled employee may use his or her personal Facebook page to vent frustrations or confidential information. It is better to be cognizant of the possibilities and prepare accordingly than to be unprepared and react blindly when the situation arises.

One of the most exciting capabilities social media offers small museums is an incredibly cost-effective way to communicate interactively with audiences, potentially creating a stronger relationship and dialogue with the audience that was previously unavailable. A properly launched social media campaign can allow a museum to monitor the success of certain programs, garner feedback from their audience, and give its mission wings in the virtual world, all of which leads to stronger community support.

A variety of social media tools are available today, and the medium continues to grow exponentially. Entrepreneurial companies are popping up daily, offering new and exciting ways to access and communicate instantaneously with audiences on the Internet. In addition, established companies like Facebook and LinkedIn are becoming more conscientious about consumer concerns.

The strength in utilizing the medium comes from a museum’s preparedness in approaching the medium itself. Using social media is not something that should be approached lightly. It is time intensive, and (while it offers many rewards) there are an equal number of hazards to be wary of as museums prepare to engage web-based interaction.

Social media provides a fantastic way to promote the message and mission of the museum, publicize events, and energize and build the membership base as well as build up audience participation and activity engagement. All of this in turn results in a greater awareness of cultural values and community support through volunteerism, donations, and grant awards.

The medium allows museums to target specific audiences. Imagine being able to target subaudiences within your user pool to tell specific members about upcoming exhibitions that might be of particular interest. This additional personal touch makes an audience feel a deeper connection to the organization.

With such a wide variety of web-based and mobile technologies to choose from, a small museum should know its audience, both respective and prospective; identify social media goals; research available social media platforms; choose a select few social media platforms on which to focus precious resources; and engage and carefully monitor these platforms.

Social media tools to consider include: image sharing, podcasts, micro-blogs, blogs, social networks, RSS feeds, widgets, virtual worlds, interactive online exhibits, video sharing, cloud working, bookmarking, bookmark sharing, and content rating features. As you can imagine, each offers a unique set of potential legal and practical issues, including copyright and privacy issues.

 

Common Practical and Legal Challenges

As with other areas of business, many of the common challenges involved in using social media overlap with one another. Each challenge represented here is accompanied by suggestions on how to successfully manage the challenge.

 

Choosing Social Media

One of the persistent plagues of social media is that more people are producing than absorbing web-based content. Being selective and focusing on just one or two platforms is essential to a successful social media campaign. It’s easy to become wrapped up in the excitement of entering the social media world and one can easily bite off more than can be chewed. The unfocused pursuit of multiple social media venues leads to spreading the modest organization’s resources too thin, resulting not only in a potentially weak online presence, but also increased exposure to risk. Suggestion: Focus inward. Figure out the museum goals; identify the person(s) responsible for setting up and maintaining the accounts; and prepare privacy, confidentiality, and use policies for personnel and users.

 

Staff and Time Management

Because many people use platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn personally and find it fun and entertaining, they often equate the same ease with creating and maintaining a corporate account. Maintaining social media is an incredibly time-consuming venture—another reason a small museum should start out by carefully targeting one or two platforms. Maintaining these accounts properly can easily become a full-time job, from start-up consideration to maintaining, updating, and responding to consumer feedback. When maintaining a corporate account, a museum must remain vigilant: continuously monitoring comments, keeping content up-to-date, and remaining responsive to its audience. Otherwise, it risks losing audience interest and web traffic to the site. Suggestion: Designate a staff person to manage the social media platform(s) and recognize that it is more work than it appears. This person should not be a temporary staff person, like an intern or a volunteer, but rather someone who has demonstrated commitment and reliability to the museum.

 

Public Image Continuity

When juggling multiple social media platforms, museums may find it challenging to maintain a consistent public image, which has a resulting impact on branding and intellectual property rights. Users should be able to recognize the fact that they are visiting the museum’s social media page, either by use of imagery, logos, text, fonts, catch phrases, or some other indicator. This builds recognition in their minds and helps users focus on the information rather than on the inconsistencies. Suggestion: Identify visual indicators the museum will use in each social media platform and make sure that these are present in creating, maintaining, and updating each account.

 

Account Access

This is one of the most overlooked but crucial aspects. If you cannot access your social media profile(s), you have no control over your image, and social media becomes a liability. What often happens is that a volunteer, intern, or employee will set up the account and leave the museum organization, taking the access information (user names and passwords) with him or her. Suggestion: (1) Make sure to stay involved with both the creation and maintenance of social media accounts. (2) Many social media sites require an email account to be linked to the account. Use an email address of a person stable to the organization. Notifications and lost password access links are sent to this email address. (3) Know your user name and password for each social media account.

 

Employees and Social Media

Sometimes observing boundaries can be a challenge, perhaps because social media is still primarily used for personal purposes and is an informal method of distributing information instantaneously. Common challenges here include oversharing, which can lead to overstimulation and result in annoying your audience. Suggestion: (1) Prepare a social media use policy for employees; take time to review the policy at time of hire and periodically during employment relationship; and monitor employee activity on the museum social media sites. (2) Educate staff on proper uses of social media and standards of professionalism. Maintaining professionalism and a presenting a consistent image to your audience is key.

 

Volunteers and Interns

Small museums often rely very heavily on volunteers to operate. In fact, some organizations are entirely operated by volunteer workforce. Volunteers can be a transient workforce: they come and go, sometimes without much warning. It is convenient to charge volunteers and interns with social media maintenance, and there is often very little oversight. Suggestion: Closely monitor volunteer and intern activity on the account(s), including updates and content additions. Plan for their departure from the museum organization for better or worse reasons.

 

Confidentiality Concerns

Casual treatment of social media can also lead to unintentional breaches in confidentiality and public disclosures. Suggestion: The museum should have both a privacy and confidentiality policy: these are not mutually exclusive, and they can be contained in the same document. As with the social media policy, this policy should be reviewed with employees, volunteers, and interns when they are first brought into the museum and periodically so that the concepts remain fresh and impulsive behavior is not inadvertently encouraged.

 

Monitoring and Updating Accounts

Social media platforms require constant and diligent monitoring. Although a personal account might not be hurt by long absences and inactivity, a business account may be devastated by the same sporadic use. Users can be very demanding, and their expectations for freshness from a business account is much higher than for that of their friend and personal contacts. Suggestion: The designated staff person should focus on content and content management in order to get the most from the social media venture.

 

Holding User Interest

Holding user interest is challenging in today’s fast-paced marketplace, and it’s difficult to maintain a balance in keeping your audience informed and being careful not to annoy them with too frequent updates that carry mediocre information. Suggestions: (1) Know your audience: museums are typically very in tune to their audiences, so this should be a piece of cake. (2) Be selective in the material posted to the social media account. Social media platforms are not replacements for websites and should not be used to post hoards of information; rather, they are most beneficial when used to compliment the museum’s website and bring attention to specific events, opportunities, or pertinent news items. (3) Maintain a fairly regular schedule of updating and freshening accounts.

 

Responding to User Feedback

Opening the museum up to social media has the potential for both positive and negative feedback from your audience. Museums can be especially vulnerable to this issue because exhibitions often contain controversial subject matter. Suggestion: Decide in the beginning what the museum policy will be in terms of allowing users to post comments/suggestions/feedback, whether these comments will be public or private, and lastly how the museum will respond to user feedback. Consider posting a public policy stating the museum’s prerogative to remove feedback it deems false, offensive, or harmful to the museum’s public image.

 

Take It Seriously

Engaging and leveraging social media effectively is just as important as every other aspect of business management and should be undertaken with careful consideration and planning. Generally speaking, many of the challenges discussed herein can be addressed by avoiding casual treatment of social media. Advise your clients not to underestimate the amount of time and effort that goes into choosing, setting up, and maintaining social media platforms and content. Don’t overlook considerations of staff and oversight. Most importantly, remain in control of access to each social media platform.

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