How To Be More Transparent and Engaged Online? Ideas from Clay Shirky

by · January 31, 2010

The internet presents amazing opportunities – but also a lot of challenges – for organizations who have been  (until now) very traditional in their approach to external communications. The opportunity for organizations like foundations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, is how and where to use the web for greater openness and interactivity. I was at a communications conference recently and heard a lot of questions about the challenges in doing this, as well as some interesting answers from Clay Shirky, internet strategist and author.

I was at the annual conference of the Communication Network and heard discussions among foundation communications staff that they are very interested in being more successful in their use of the web — they want to become more prominent, more credible, and more influential online.  And many of them realize that to accomplish this they need to be more open and engaged with their key audiences and with the public on the Internet.

But this all makes them nervous! They know that they can be more open and engaged online by using blogs, by sharing more of their internal discussions or information, by inviting comment and input, or by participating in social media and social networking sites – and other “Web 2.0” strategies. However, the thought of doing this worries them – because of the staff time they think it will take, and because of the perceived risk of losing control of their “messages”. Their communications work has traditionally been about crafting and disseminating carefully controlled messages – and so more openly inviting input (“but what if people say bad things about us?!”) is a big concern to them. TWD57V4YGZ76

Clay Shirky spoke at the conference and had some interesting answers to these concerns. Clay is an internet trends analyst, speaker, writer and teacher (Home page, Wikipedia entry).  Clay wrote a 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody” which he says is about “…what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures.” At the conference, Clay spoke about themes from the book – about how the internet is enabling groups of people to find others with common interests and to organize together to get things done, whether consumer protests, or political action etc.

At the end of the talk Clay got an interesting question about how foundations should approach the web, about how they should use it for showing transparency, and for  interacting with people. I paraphrase the question, and Clay’s answers, below, and add some of my own comments.  The video clip above shows the questions and how Clay answered it.

Q: How transparent, how interactive, do we want our public face (as a foundation) to be? Do we put a blog out there that rehashes in real time, for an unknowable audience the things that we are going through as we formulate policy and directions? Or do we just present (our policies and decisions) as a “fait accompli”, as already decided, to the public?

Shirky: Open and transparent – all or nothing?
You should not look at this as being just two choices – of  either being completely open/transparent online, or being completely closed off online.  It would be a huge resource drain, among other things, for an organization to try to suddenly open up online with everything all the time that organization is doing.  The question should be, instead, what can you do to become more transparent than you are today, and in what direction and around what experiments?

Shirky: Loss of control?
And the best argument you can make for that, for being more transparent online, is that outside your organization, communications is no longer about public relations or controlling the message. The “loss of control” you fear is already in the past – people are already having conversations on the web about your organization and related issues. You can either participate, or choose to have a strategy of not participating. Not participating in conversations with people about your work or your issues is a lot different from choosing to not send out another press release.

(Comment: I like Shirky’s noting this – that it is not an all or nothing decision organizations face about opening up and being more transparent about some aspect of their activities, their decisions, their strategy, etc.  And regarding whether to participate or not – I hear him saying that if you chose to sit out the conversation – you are choosing to not participate in possibly meaningful interactions with people.)

Shirky:  The value of using the web for convening:
Another large benefit of participating more actively online is the “upstream” information and insights you will gather. The “convening” function of the web has turned out to be phenomenally important. The web allows people with common interests to find each other and come together and to share ideas and to contribute in some way – whether large or small. Many organizations – as well as companies like FlipCam (whichI used for this video!) are using the web to convene conversations and to gather important insights into their work/products.

(Comment: Shirky here references two examples he used in his talk – one of where a UK student used Facebook to launch a protest against the policies of the bank HSBC (“Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-off!!!”). This is one example, he said,  of the web allowing people to come together in new ways to join for a common purpuse, a form of organizaing that – before the internet – would not have been possible.)

Shirky: What does this mean for communications professionals?
Expanding openness and transparency online is not valuable primarily because it will make communications more effective — but because it will make communications matter in more places and produce more value. It will make communications more important to the success of an organization than when communications was just focused on being the organization’s external face to the world.

Shirky: Where to be more open and engaged online?
The way to become more open and transparent online is to figure out where on the web are the people you want to be talking with. It is not a question of “Whether you need to have a Facebook page or not.” The question is are the people I matter to on Facebook? If they are not – then do not bother with Facebook. If they are on Facebook, then engage with them there. And also give them content and tools there so they can take your content, take your messages, and distribute them more widely.

Shirky: How to decide if greater transparency is valuable?
In terms of transparency, if there are people outside of your organization whom you respect and whose input you would value – then, yes — then provide them with more information, and ways to engage with you.  But every organization also has the imperative to decide what are issues which it needs to keep internal.

In sum? My takeaways from Clay’s answers are:

  • There is tremendous value to organizations in using the internet to engage with the people who care about your work – to hear from them, to learn from them, to get them to disseminate your messages.
  • Organizations who are new to using the internet for engagement do not need to  start doing this at a deep level immediately.
  • You can start slow – by finding out where online the people you care about are active, and discussing the kinds of issues you care about. And by finding ways to be a little more open and engaged with these audiences.
  • Find ways to engage them where they are, or, eventually, to convene the discussion yourself. Provide people with your content and with tools to help them disseminate your messages.
  • Transparency is valuable to build credibility, to show openness. But, obviously, every organization needs to determine what are its limits, what things it needs to keep internal.
  • Do not worry about “losing control” of your messages or conversations! You already have lost control – because of something called the internet. So better to get engaged in the conversations. Choosing to not engage with your key audiences online is one choice you can make, but probably not a smart one.

Other resources:
Communications Network 2008 Report “Come On In. The Water’s Fine.” About Foundations and Web 2.0 Interactivity: Download PDF report:

Nancy Schwartz, online marketing blogger, on Foundations and Web 2.0

Clay Shirky – video of presentation at US State Department on “Institutions versus Collaboration.”

Post By Chris Wolz (2 Posts)


Discussion4 Comments

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