The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

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An Ode to E-mail as a Community Management Tool

A cursory glance through my social media accounts reveals a few key things about me: I love coffee, the startup world, and probably most curiously that my social media platforms have been intermittently active until this past year.  For someone who is in the middle of co-founding a business that revolves around community management, what gives?

But today I want to focus on getting back to the basics—downright rave about them even—because they harken back to a time when I was a Community Manager in a very different realm.  As an Intelligence Officer for the US Department of Homeland Security my job was to be the community manager for over 76 remote intelligence officers around the country.  Behind every major event that went on between 2010 and 2012 you can bet I was at my post banging on the most prolific community management tool they had—e-mail—for hours on end.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

(To dispel the myth that every American lives by—that the US Government offices are technologically superior in every way—I want to point out that I operated on three terminals. All windows based. Made in 1995.  Eat your heart out, techies.)

But I digress, amidst a digital world overflowing with social media platforms, options, and push notifications; I still think back to my time in the big black box of intelligence with fondness for the community that we built, all over good old e-mail.

These days e-mail as a community management medium appears to be on the upswing. Jason Calacanis even uses it as his newsletter platform. It seems to me with each passing day that more and more Founders abandon their MailChimp account, deferring to old-faithful.  Why are they doing it?  Like throwing on your bell-bottom jeans from the 70s (or the 90s, for that matter) here is why I love the return to e-mail for community management (especially in crisis situations).

  1. Trust/Authenticity:  One can always tell when a robot is behind the wheel. There is something comforting about being written from a specific person with whom you have grown a trusting relationship.  Their message cannot help but be anything but authentic.  In a crisis, the last thing you want to trust is a random behind insert-social-media-account-here.  When you are a person, you need another person to give you comfort.  Even after all these years, that’s just how it is.

  1. Centralized Voice: Whenever there is a true crisis in the United States—when FEMA, the Police, and massive amounts of Firefighters are called in—the last thing you want to see is a string of tweets.  Fear builds quickly among humans, and I have yet to witness a case in which a decentralized communication mechanism (twitter, etc.) has contributed to widespread comfort.  But an e-mail from your loved one?  Or from a friend?  Or from someone who is embedded in the community?  Now that’s a centralized voice that everyone can depend on.

  1. Focus: “Real time” interaction over a social media platform is fantastic—it is fun, and engaging, and informative—but it can be hugely destructive when you are trying to mobilize a crowd towards a specific end-scenario (e.g. a safe situation).  When I think about what went really well in the intelligence realm, it was focused, regular communication: written out summaries with need-to-know information, and an update even when the update was “no further information.” In a crisis situation, I have found, the best thing you can do is cut out the clutter and back-and-forth to get to the point.

Now what I have to say is not the gospel by any means.  Indeed, I am truly looking forward to the panel on Handling Disasters and understanding what others have done in the past to field unwieldy communities, shepherding them to calmer waters.

From one former intelligence officer to current, intelligent community managers—I look forward to seeing you there!

The Handling Disasters panel takes place on January 27, 2014 at 11:00am EST. Join community managers from Ning, Invoke Labs, HY Connect and Entrepreneur to discuss what to do when a disaster takes place in your community.

Shala Burroughs

Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at CloudPeeps
Shala Burroughs is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of CloudPeeps—a company that connects busy startup Founders with authentic, experienced, remote community managers.  She is a Startup Leadership Program Fellow in New York City and an Athena Management Mastermind.  She has previously worked with Women Innovate Mobile, Quartz, and Lerer Ventures. Prior to her foray into the startup community, Shala was an Intelligence Officer with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) where she coordinated the activities of 76 Intelligence Officers across the US.  Don’t worry about her getting to know you—she’s been reading your e-mails for years….

Shala holds a BA in Government from Dartmouth College where she was a 2007 Rockefeller Center Leadership Fellow and continues to serve her alma mater as a member of Dartmouth’s Young Alumni Advisory Board.  She is married to the most patient husband in the world, maintains a fierce passion for cooking, and loves to spend time with her hot mess of a beagle, Kona.

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