What Nuns, Yes Nuns, Can Teach You About Social Media

The Sisters Are Tweeting, and Using Social Media for Social Good

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Bernhard Warner
Bernhard Warner
In New York or London, I find, there's a healthy mix of job titles that attend social media functions: communications and marketing professionals, random journos, maybe lawyers, and possibly public sector employees, are usually in the audience. In Rome, you get nuns.

OK, it's not just nuns here. But in a city where religious organizations and charities are such a dominant part of the local workforce you are bound to get men and women of the cloth who happen to code and tweet and do quite a bit of outreach through social networks peppering you with tough questions about proper social media editorial strategy.

I found it a refreshing change to deal with professionals whose mission had less to do with profit and loss, but rather life and death. In the course of the questioning I learned a few things, which I thought I'd jot down here in no particular order. (I am resisting here the urge to add yet another top five/seven/ten list to the world of social media how-to journalism. I think the nuns would want me to avoid the easy clich�.) Here goes:

Ethics. Of course, given the audience, I have to start here. A lot of social media best practice talks focus on the importance of reach and relevance. And if you get those right, a third "R" is usually achieved: respect. That's the formula I use anyhow. But a fourth "R" came up in the course of conversation. It's not just "respect," but "respectfulness" that we should be striving for. It came to me by way of example.

The nuns explained their charity work takes them usually to the roughest parts of the roughest cities in the world. Their main mission is to disrupt criminal networks that specialize in child slavery and human trafficking. Their stories were heartbreaking and gripping. I wanted to know more. And prospective donors do too. But they are torn between informing the world about their achievements, highlighting the touching success stories, and the inherent risks in saying too much. Lives are at stake, after all. Their commitment is to the young girls and their families they help. How then, they wanted to know, could they balance the need to publish with the need to protect? My response: you have to think like an editor. Along with the power of publishing comes an important responsibility to your readers. Journalists are familiar with this concept. Anybody in the business of creating content and serving a community ought to be too.

Commitment. Nuns are big on the notion of commitment. They actually speak more of "vocation" or "calling," which happens to be a more apt way of thinking about how to view social media within a company or organization. It's a 24-7 job. The public of course comments, queries and quips on social networks outside of working hours. If you are truly devoted to your community, you and your team should check in on them every day, and late at night, and again first thing in the morning. They may need you.

The power of doing. Cash-strapped organizations are always searching for kind-hearted souls to volunteer their time to a particular cause. Without them they simply cannot function. And so a lot of the discussion turned to the ethics of leveraging the network to ask for help. Namely, is this okay?, they wanted to know. My response? Absolutely! Done smartly, crowdsourcing for volunteers delivers a sense of purpose to a community. It's easy to say that when you are in the saving-the-world business as these nuns and charity workers are. But it makes sense for big brands too. Some of the most effective social media-inspired initiatives of the past year have been GE's Ecomagination and PepsiCo's Refresh Projectwhere they ask the general public for their bright ideas on how to improve the planet. Nuns are in the improving-the-planet business too of course. Case in point: the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who run a fair-trade organization called Handcrafting Justice and Good Shepherd Services, a New York-based social service and youth development organization. These days, naturally, they are active on Facebook. (Full disclosure: it was the Good Shepherd Services who organized the particular workshop that gave me the idea for this column; a half-dozen religious orders were in attendance that day.)

Values. It's pretty obvious where you stand when you spend your days fighting human traffickers. But that message is not so clear with some other organizations and brands that have caught the social media publishing bug. If you assemble a vast virtual community interested only in daily deals and clever TV ads then maybe you should reconsider your social media publishing mission. After all, your community is a reflection of your organization, and vice versa. They/you should stand for something.

The power of listening. Every once in a while it's a good idea to keep your mouth shut, or, to simply go easy on the "Tweet" button. Spamming your community with hurry-up-and-register messages is no way to win friends. Worse still is failing to see this channel for social interaction that you've created as a learning experience, or better yet, an investment in self-enrichment. You can learn a lot from a person who takes the trouble to reach out to you.

The power of creativity. I have to admit it's only recently that I began looking into what religious orders, charities and religious NGOs are doing in the area of social media. What particular impresses me is the genuineness of their approach and the creativity with which they use to lay out tough messages � sacrifice, vocation, mercy, charity � in a medium filled with a lot of distractions for the typical social media user. What do I mean? Look at the tweets of Sister Christine Ereiser, a Benedictine nun from Tulsa, Oklahoma. She's active on Twitter and is avid podcaster. By the way, her order, the Benedictine Sisters, is engaging, humorous and even cheeky at times. Go sisters! Finally, I have to point out the pioneering work of Sister Julie from Chicago, a podcaster, blogger and founder of A Nun's Life Ministry. She provides a fascinating insight into a community of nuns that we don't often get to see: they are avid content creators, active networkers, and, yes, very geeky!

These are only a few of the impressive social media publishing forces coming out of the convent (or any religious organization, for that matter) that I could fit into a short column. There are plenty of others. If you have a favorite, let me know.

Bernhard Warner is a director at the editorial consultancy Custom Communication and are co-founders of Social Media Influence. He tweets at @socialinfluence and at @bernhardwarner..
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