A Rioters’ Guide To Community Relations

I’ve been thinking a lot about community this week, with family and friends living in the Clapham, Croydon and Liverpool areas of England, all of which are making the international news this week as the scenes of teenage rioting, criminal damage to homes and businesses, and widespread looting.

The dramatic change in London’s PR image, just a few weeks after the world watched Kate and Wills walk down the aisle in the Royal Wedding of the decade, and now less than year from the 2012 Olympics, images of ‘London burning’ now come to the forefront.

For me this simply underlines that when it comes to a community, you are either part of it, or you are not. Ultimately, you must decide.

A community is defined by the shared experiences, values, and personal investment of its members. It’s a largely self-selecting process –either based upon the same physical location, culture, religion, or that you are a keen knitter, runner, volunteer, or whatever. Community is about ‘people like me’ where the linking factor is infinitely variable.  This begs the question:  are the rioters living inside their local communities, or do they consider themselves to be outcasts? Do they actually believe that normal rules of civil obedience don’t apply to them?

Every community has its disenfranchised – those at its borders who feel left out. Sociology explains this situation in terms of being ‘in group’ or ‘out group.’ To a greater or lesser extent, the things that bond some people together into a community are the same things that keep others out.  Are these the effects that we have been watching in the UK this week – people who feel that they are not being allowed to participate as a productive part of their community, and so have no concerns about smashing it up?  In overly-simplified terms, are many of the rioters third-generation unemployed, with few prospects or support infrastructure in a worsening financial climate?

Or perhaps the rioters are just the disruptive element that, again, is found in all communities.  This minority occasionally achieves long-term positive results, driving necessary change in attitudes and behavior, but is more often just the trouble-making element. Are at least some of the rioters those who have chosen gang culture over other options? I can’t judge, but as a self-confessed softie Liberal, I doubt it is as simple as that.

So what lessons can online community managers learn from the rioters? As always, understanding how ‘people work’ in the real world is a good basis in understanding what’s happening in the virtual world:

  • Self-selection: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Just because you build a fan-page, website, or blog doesn’t mean people will come to you. To engage with a community on behalf of a company or brand, you need to give people a valid reason to want to be there. Sometimes a better option is to go to them – participate in a valued way in their community hang-outs, whether in a social networking group, wiki or forum.
  • Disenfranchisement: Set clear guidelines about what your community is designed to achieve, clarifying who it is for, so that people can more accurately self-select based upon the information you provide. Have a structure in place that protects your community members from each other and external factors. Sadly, human nature can be cruel especially when a gang-mentality sets in. No one likes rules, but that’s why Terms of Use need to be taken seriously, if nothing else to prevent mobbing of the disenfranchised.

Disruptive element: Fear of the social media yobs, terrorists, and trolls is what often prevents organizations from participating. The disruptive element is there, and you need to recognize it for what it is: a small but potentially influential minority, sometimes bearing positive outcomes for the group as a whole. How organizations recognize and respond to the actions of this group can be decisive – here’s a great example of how the US Air Force deals with this problem. http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2008/12/31/diagram-how-the-air-force-response-to-blogs/.

Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-group

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobbing

Ronna PorterOnPR Munich

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