Peter Panepento

Peter Panepento

“Going viral” isn’t really something you can predict. In his latest guest post for us on PR for nonprofits, Peter Panepento explains how the culture of your organization is much more important to your work than coming up with a clever video. ~Kivi

Guest Post by Peter Panepento of Panepento Strategies

“Why can’t we go viral like that?”

It’s a question you’ve likely heard at some point from your executive director or board chair. And following the runaway success of last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s likely that this question has been dogging you even more lately.

If you’ve struggled to find a way to answer this question without seeming snarky, here’s one approach — an approach that might open up a larger, more strategic discussion about how your organization presents itself to the world.

You can explain that there are essentially two ways to go viral.

The first is a PR pro’s nightmare: your organization missteps or makes a mistake and you become the center of a social- and traditional-media firestorm. Think of Susan G. Komen for the Cure during its spat with Planned Parenthood or NPR following the release of secret recordings of one of its top fundraisers.

These groups went viral alright — and it hurt their images and their balance sheets in devastating ways.

The second is to create or become a part of an online sensation that makes your charity the darling of the social-media world. This is what happened to the ALS Association last summer with the Ice Bucket Challenge or Invisible Children a few years ago following the release of its Kony 2012 video.

No nonprofit leader in her right mind would wish for the first scenario and no nonprofit communicator can promise to engineer the second scenario — no matter how good she is at her craft.

But, as a communicator, you CAN create the conditions that mitigate against the viral disaster and position your organization to get your most passionate supporters to spread the word for you online.

And it all starts with your organization’s culture. Going viral isn’t really about what tactics you use in the moment — it’s the result of how you operate day-in and day-out. It’s about the culture you create and the way your supporters interact with you.

Does your nonprofit have a strict, top-down culture in which it needs to carefully control its message?

Or do you take a more democratic approach in which your charity openly invites its supporters to speak on its behalf? You have a clear message, for sure, but you empower others — your donors, your volunteers, and the least-senior person on your staff — to be your messenger.

Charities that have become the center of viral nightmares all share similar traits. They were slow to react. They attempted to rely on carefully crafted statements. In some cases, they have even attempted to stifle communications and shut down debates.

In these cases, the failures were the result of poor organizational cultures.

Meanwhile, those that have earned big bumps through social media have done so because they have been willing to cede control. They understand that they cannot control the conversation — but they can provide tools and resources that can help frame the conversation.

After all, the Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t a campaign created by a charity. It was started — and built — by people who cared deeply about a cause. It wasn’t a clever communications campaign. It was a movement that was larger than any one group.

The ALS Association understood that and its leadership resisted the urge to try to own the Ice Bucket Challenge. It was an active participant in the movement. It created a page on its site that helped donors learn about the disease and the organization, for sure. But it was always very clear that the Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t about the charity. It was about finding a cure for a terrible disease.

We all know charities that wouldn’t have acted so gracefully — and I’m pretty sure their ham-handed efforts would have backfired.

As a nonprofit communicator, you can’t guarantee that your organization will ever go viral — either positively or negatively.

But part of your role is working to help create the conditions that will either help you put out the fire when something unfortunate happens or fan the flames when an opportunity arises.

It’s not about tactics. It’s not about your ability to develop a clever idea. It’s about your ability to articulate a long-term strategy and cultivate a culture that makes everyone in your organization a partner in your work.

If that culture already exists at your nonprofit, your executive director probably isn’t asking you about why you aren’t going viral.

She already understands what it takes.

Peter Panepento is principal at Panepento Strategies, a full-service content, digital, and social strategy firm for nonprofits and socially-minded companies. He was formerly an assistant managing editor at the The Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he led its transition into digital journalism and social media — a transition that included the creation of some of the nonprofit world’s richest online communities, the launch of a highly profitable webinar series, and the creation of new digital products such as the How America Gives giving database.