“The loss of control you fear is already in the past . . . You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.”—Clay Shirky, 2010

It’s been a long six months for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In October, a labor dispute between the organization and its musicians ground performances to a halt as oboe players, the string section, the timpani player, and the rest of the musicians said they would play no more until their demands were met. Only recently did the two sides come to an agreement, but the fight was not without its costs for both sides.

The original dispute centered on how deep a pay cut the musicians would have to take to help the struggling symphony balance its budget. The musicians were offering to accept a 22 percent cut, while management sought and then imposed a 33 percent cut.

As with most labor disputes passions ran high. There was the typical picketing and demonstrating and the local press followed the story very closely. But along with these traditional means of public discourse and public relations a newer, louder mouthpiece inserted itself into the debate – social media, particularly Facebook.

A torrent of vitriolic Facebook updates, both on the DSO page as well as the musician’s newly formed page, began to rain down like fire-tipped arrows as the two sides failed to come to an agreement. After some time, there was a sense that the Symphony had lost its footing in the battle over the hearts and minds of its community. Not only were many of the updates on the Symphony’s Facebook page negative, the musicians created their own Facebook page that soon surpassed the Symphony’s in number of fans.

Social media provided a twist to the ongoing negotiations between musicians and the DSO, says Elizabeth Weigandt, the DSO’s director of public relations. “It presented a lot of interesting questions and challenges.”

At one point, after months of mostly standing clear of the fray on Facebook, a representative from management called into question how many people in an advocacy group called Save Our Symphony actually contributed money to the DSO. At least 169 people left comments, and they were overwhelmingly negative, according to a story heard on National Public Radio.

I am shocked, saddened and disgusted by this post. If you’re trying to prove how unprofessional you can be, bravo.

In the time it took to type this posting, a phone call could have been made to a potential donor.

I’ve been on the fence during this whole strike thing, trying to learn the whole story, and this post finally teeters me over to the side of the musicians.

Cornelia Pokrzywa, a member of Save Our Symphony and active commenter on the groups’ Facebook pages, told NPQ that the rise of social media has completely changed the way an organization like the DSO interacts with its employees and its stakeholders, including its audience and donors.

The bitter, six-month strike cancelled 75 percent of the orchestra’s season, and “left deep institutional scars while symbolizing a turbulent era of change and economic uncertainty among American orchestras,” according to the Detroit Free Press. It’s hard not to believe that some of those scars cut deeper because of the widespread use of Facebook as a platform for the debate. The lightening fast, and sometimes anonymous, postings at times seemed to fuel the fire rather than clarify a position.

Ethan Allen, orchestra librarian and card-carrying member of the musician’s union, is the administrator of the musicians’ Facebook page. He says that it was a slow process getting their social media presence organized (the musicians also maintain a website and Twitter account), but once they were up and running it became a huge help in their cause. “Television news and newspapers write what they want, mostly one-sided,” says Allen. “Now we were able to get our message out to so many people.”

The musicians were able to organize some 15 concerts – some free, some fundraisers, and many of them sellouts. The group mobilized 200 – 300 people to demonstrate at a recent Symphony board meeting. And they were able to shut down many of the ongoing, non-orchestral, programs at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, as many out of town musicians refused to cross the picket line.

Clearly, social media has emerged as a powerful mobilizing tool, particularly for issues like labor disputes, where political passions run high. Whichever side you’re on, labor or management, experiences like the one the DSO and its musicians have faced for the past six months tell us that social media is here to stay and nonprofits have to understand how to manage – no, embrace – the now-dominant form of communication for more and more of their community members.

Constituents, donors, and community members are now in control, says Michael Hoffman, CEO of See3 Communications. “We are all creating content. The people who will fail are people who look at these tools as just another location to push out their marketing agenda.” Social media has democratized the discussion and reinforced the notion that communication is a two way street – a two way street where speed limits are ignored.

The DSO is not alone in facing these challenges. Controversies of all stripes are increasingly being played out in the public eye, as comments on blogs, Facebook updates, tweets, and YouTube videos have created a new portal into the inner workings of NGOs, aid groups, charities, nonprofit groups, and to a lesser extent foundations. If there is dirty laundry inside the house, it will be seen by many.

A failed merger of Smile Train and Operation Smile, two groups that work to help repair cleft palates in children around the world, represents another in a string of these very public disputes. The announcement on Feb. 14 that the two organizations were merging at the time seemed like an effort to set aside a longstanding feud in the interests of a greater good. Stephanie Strom of the New York Times called the two groups the “Hatfields and McCoys of the charity world.”

But when Smile Train donors got wind of the merger, they took matters into their own hands, forming an online petition and mobilizing  opposition in a way that may not have been possible even five years ago. Donors representing about $7.9 million in contributions, according to Strom, signed the online petition opposing the merger and its medical advisory board has also opposed the plan. Amid public and constituent outcry about the fairness of the plan, the merger was scuttled.

Elsewhere, discussions nearly boiled over last year on the internal social networking pages of Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a group whose mission is to improve the treatment, quality of life, and long-term outlook for all individuals affected by Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

When a controversial new treatment was announced, the Parent Project website lit up with a passionate discussion arguing both the pros and cons of the therapy. “The community was very divided,” says Will Nolan, director of communications at the Parent Project. These kinds of social networks allow people to respond in a “knee-jerk way,” says Nolan. “It’s so instantaneous,” he added.

The conversation became so heated that at one point a doctor involved with the treatment threatened a slander lawsuit, according to Nolan.

The 3,500 to 4,000-member social pages of the Parent Project’s website allows parents, caregivers, doctors and family members to build a community around a common cause. Because it is a members-only community, it also allowed Nolan to move the heated debate over to Facebook and other public social networking sites to avoid a possible legal battle.

Other public displays of controversy include the struggle for organizational control of a small bereavement camp for children in Richmond, Va., and a disagreement over a proposed merger between two United Ways in Mahoning Valley, Ohio, just to name two.

Nonprofits are well aware of the power of social media. According to a 2010 UMASS Dartmouth study, all of the top 200 charities, as identified by Forbes magazine, participated in at least one form of social media.

When things are going well for an organization, there’s nothing better for them than to see “retweets” and “Likes” all over their social media dashboard. But what happens when things go bad? Can organizations turn off the tap they’ve worked so hard to turn on? What happens when the message spins wildly out of control?

“You never had control,” says Katya Andresen, chief operating officer of Network for Good. “Let go of that illusion,” she adds. “Remember that this [social media] is a conversation. It’s not a war or a monologue.”

When things go wrong – and things will go wrong – Andresen has several rules of thumb that organizations should live by:

  • Listen. Monitor your online presence. Hear what people are saying about you. Use Google Alerts or search Twitter for mentions of your organization
  • When you find something wrong or inaccurate, first look at who’s saying it and how big the audience is. This will help determine if a response is needed.
  • Err on the side of engagement. Act quickly, on the spot, in the same medium where the problem first surfaced.

This kind of thinking is a psychological shift for many, says Hoffman of See3 Communications. The use of social media forces nonprofits to engage as a member of a community in a way they may not yet be used to. More and more, constituents and donors expect immediacy and accountability in their relationships to nonprofits.

Hoffman says we are living in the age of a new kind of transparency. And this is changing the way organizations need to do business. “People realize that anyone with a phone can do all this!” says Hoffman. Unfortunately, he says, most organizations haven’t caught up with this notion.

Many groups are “still stuck in the 1.0 attitude as being a broadcaster instead of a conversationalist,” says Farra Trompeter, vice president of client relationships and strategy at the New York City-based nonprofit communications firm, Big Duck. “You can choose to be a part of it, or you can ignore it,” Trompeter adds. “But people have come to believe they have the right to express how they feel. And they expect to be responded to.”

One group that seems to understand the new kind of transparency and responsiveness is charity: water. The group has over a million Twitter followers and a well-cultivated presence on Vimeo, the social video-sharing website. It was a video posted on Vimeo that perhaps best demonstrates both the risks and opportunities for nonprofits living in the new age of transparency.

When charity: water decided to drill a well in Central Africa, they brought along a camera, thinking they’d post the video to social networking sites, as they often do. They imagined joyous scenes of fresh water bubbling up out of the earth and local villagers smiling with pleasure and relief. It didn’t work out that way. It turns out conjuring water from hundreds of feet below ground is difficult and unpredictable work. The drilling project failed. No water.

But instead of shelving the idea, they posted the video, and even promoted the “failure” on the Huffington Post website. “I’ve always been surprised that people are surprised that we’re so open about it,” says Scott Harrison, founder and ceo of charity: water. Harrison said the group committed early on to being as open and transparent as possible.

Harrison hasn’t given  up on the project. He’s planning a trip back to the Central African Republic to try once again to bring clean drinking water to the Bayaka people of Moale Village.

This kind of openness seems to free groups from the pressures of failure and allow for more experimentation. “PR professionals will tell you to get out in front of a situation,” says Hoffman. “But you don’t have to get out in front if you’re open all along.” By being transparent, charity: water engendered trust among its supporters, inoculated itself against claims of failure, and turned a potential debacle into a positive opportunity.

Even the word transparency doesn’t entirely explain the new way nonprofits need to do business in the age of social media, says Bruce Trachtenberg*, executive director of the Communications Network. Transparency really means only being able to look inside, he says. “Social networking is engagement and if you don’t let people in . . . they’ll kick the bloody door in.”

Mistakes will happen, says Andresen. And responding authentically is the best approach. “The problem is, our first instinct is to run,” she says. “But there is something humbling and authentic about making a public mistake. There is a human recognition that we all make mistakes.”

“We’re all learning. This is new territory for all of us,” she adds.

“The past three years have shown a lot of evolution toward a 2.0 way of thinking,” says Big Duck’s Trompeter. “But right now we’re crawling and walking. Just a few of us are running.”

For her part, Weigandt of the DSO says that if she had the chance to do it again, she would have been much more comfortable with the DSO’s philosophy around its approach to social media from the beginning. “It was all a part of a learning process,” she added.

Back in Detroit, the DSO is playing its first performance in six months at the time of this writing. A settlement ratified on April 9 allows the DSO to salvage the final two months of the current season and preserve some or all of the summer season. “We’re planning a third of the season in two days,” Allen told NPQ the day after the deal was announced.

The dispute left both parties battered and bruised. The new contract institutes pay cuts of nearly 23 percent, “the steepest salary reductions accepted by a major American symphony in decades,” according to the Detroit Free Press. Aside from the deep cuts the musicians took and the continuing financial troubles the DSO finds itself in, deep wounds left by the debate – largely played out on Facebook – will take time to heal.

On the day the agreement was announced, Weigandt, the DSO’s director of public relations, was relieved, if not weary, and pulled a positive message from the experience. “The participation we saw on social media was very helpful because it shared with us directly the sentiments of our community. What we learned was that so many people care deeply about the DSO.”

The musicians of the DSO are relieved too. But wiser now, and veterans of a new – and more transparent – kind of public discourse. Allen was also impressed with the intense social media engagement. “It shows that Detroit cherishes its orchestra,” he says.

The musicians plan to keep their social media presence apart from the DSO’s. They hope to pivot from the kind of discord seen over the past six months to showcasing the positive aspects of the lives and work of their members. “We need to heal these wounds and work together,” Allen says. “But it’s not Kumbayah,” he added. “If we do have more issues, we’ve now got a microphone.”

*Bruce Trachtenberg is a former Nonprofit Quarterly board member.