“Greenpeace’s survival has been dependent on this capacity to inform but never bore the public.”
One of the frustrations of being a Greenpeace insider is standing in the slipstream of some amazing stories. Doesn’t sound frustrating, does it? Well it is.
I’m at YAM (yet another meeting) at the de Bron conference center with some old Greenpeace hands. In the last two hours, I’ve heard some outrageous stuff, some of which can’t really be told, and some which just hasn’t. The ones that can’t be told I understand: one campaigner had a string of vignettes about his approach to making people “A Greenpeace Campaigner for an hour” — the harbourmaster he forewarned of a Greenpeace illegal timber blockade and who was willing to ignore his phone for an hour, the corporate insider who actually asked us to make a critical comment in a press release about a policy we both wanted changed, so he could pressure his colleages — the specifics of these kinds of stories can mean people’s jobs (I’ve altered the two examples). But the ones that just don’t get told because we don’t gather them and value them and put them out there break my heart. As a communicator, I want these things to be out there in the world, I want people to know about them.
But Greenpeace is a child of the television era, a student of the pre–digested and regurgitated soundbite to camera. Campaigners who can tell a story that grips everyone’s attention in the galley of a ship or around a beer-soaked table turn into CNN Sock Puppets when we put a microphone in their face. And too many, behind a keyboard, think that Greenpeace’s voice is supposed to sound like the New York Times.
The contrast for me is most striking when I look at how we talk to each other in internal communications, vs. how we talk to our audience. Our internal culture is very informal — we talk to one another the way friends talk to each other. Which these days, pal, is the way you and me talk in this here Blog–o-Sphere.
The way Flickr talks to you when it says “Flickr is having a massage” instead of “Our servers are down for maintenance. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience.”
The way two people involved in a social network like Facebook or MySpace talk. It’s the difference between mediated communications in which someone talks for an organization (which is what you want at a press conference, a meeting with a corporate target, a contract negotiation) and two people who talk to each other as equal members of a social movement. Which is what you want here.
I’ve seen fist-pumping victory messages to colleagues that left all of us with that Woo–Hoo glow of victory turn into the most turgid communications imaginable as “Greenpeace today welcomed the decision of Mr. Burns to shut down the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, noting that this represents the culmination of several decades of advocacy work and the primacy of environmental principles over short term profit.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when someone reanimates your corpse, please. BURNS FOLDS, NUKE SLAYED
: You’re JUMPING FOR JOY. Say it!
A couple weeks ago we had an internal communiqué that began “Here’s some kick-ass good news from Indonesia” about a Fatwa being declared against a planned nuclear power plant by the Islamic Religious Council of Java. The message arrived at YAM, was read aloud to cheers and back slapping and uproarious approval. Within minutes, I’d posted that sentence to the Greenpeace weblog.
And within hours, I had several people on my ass about inappropriate language or cultural insensitivity. Whoops. I talked the way we talk when we’re trying to inspire one another. I talked the way we talk when we talk to colleagues. I talked the way we talked when we talk to people we know and trust. And we can’t talk to our supporters that way, can we?
It’s a BLOG people. It’s personal. It’s the place where we take off the pancake makeup, put our feet up in the dressing room, have a cuppa tea and TALK TO people instead of talking AT them. And if we think that they’re not in this with us, shoulder to shoulder, I don’t know where we think they are.
As with 99% of these things in my experience, the internal demand for puritanism and formulaic communications is out of touch with what we hear back from supporters. Public concern about my use of language: 0. Number of comments at the blog expressing dismay at my cultural insensitivity: 0. Number of internal messages asking me to wash my mouth out with soap: 4.
Fortunately, our management team at Greenpeace International gets this. We won’t be joining the ranks of the 10% of companies that have fired people for blogs deemed inappropriate anytime soon. But for those of us who blog and take voice issues seriously, it’s going to take lots of work and tomato-ducking to turn the big ship to a new course.
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