Defining Online Community Management

[This is a re-post from the Culture Digitally blog. Enjoy!]

New technologies make new economies, and new economies make new jobs. As a response to this, some of the most forward-thinking academic programs aim to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and more programs should follow their lead. Students of strategic communication–a catch-all term that includes public relations, advertising, integrated marketing communication and the like–should take note of a whole new class of jobs that has emerged in recent years focused on the effective management of online communities (see, for example, the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s recent job posting for an “experienced online guru” to manage the project’s many social media presences).

I predict we will see many more of these jobs that fall under the broad umbrella of “online community management,” and I offer this post as a first attempt to define this emerging profession and make a case for the relevance of strategic communication planning in this new domain.

Let’s take a look at “online community management” word by word:

  • Online: Online community management happens online. It may include offline, face-to-face or phone work, but it is, at its core, work that takes place via the Internet. Coordinating online stakeholders and customers is qualitatively different from coordinating face-to-face stakeholders and customers. Online communications can take place at far quicker speeds, across larger geographical expanses, asynchronously or in real-time, and under the veil of anonymous or pseudonymous cover. The volatile flows of the online mediascape require a different set of skills.
  • Community: Communities are both real and imagined. They have their own internal governance structures, lingo, and norms. They are simultaneously collective wholes with a common vision and interconnected individuals with specific needs. Members in the community may also come and go without notice, and online communities may collapse entirely with a mass exodus of participants.
  • Management: Management implies a strategic, purposeful coordination of resources to meet specific objectives. Managers are both secretaries and shepherds, taking note of the community’s needs and wants while moving the group toward a common goal. Effective strategic management also requires research, planning, evaluation measures.

The Centrality of Strategic Communication in Online Community Management

Relationships between an organization and its stakeholders (customers, clients, donors, employees, etc.) are usually “strongest when they are mutually beneficial and characterized by ‘win-win’ outcomes” (Heath & Coombs, 2006, p. 5), when they are symmetrical and two-way in the flow of communication (J. E. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992; L. A. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992), and when they are at the core of strategic communication practice (Ledingham, 2003).

The strength of seeing project and organizational management functions through the lens of communication is the emphasis on process rather than on preparations and outcomes or inputs and outputs. Strategic communication, then, involves investing in the process of maintaining relationships with stakeholders in order to achieve management goals. Because so many companies and nonprofits (and even government functions) rely on the maintenance of healthy, productive, and sometimes sizeable online communities, strategic communication is an apt framework for understanding how organizations can maintain relationships with these communities.

Generally, strategic communication practice follows a common campaign process. Described through a variety of acronyms, including PIE (Planning, Implementation, Evaluation) (Bobbitt & Sullivan, 2009) and RACE (Research, Action, Communication, Evaluation) (Marston, 1963), I prefer the granularity of Parkinson and Ekachai’s (2006) ROSTE method for strategic communication planning: Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, and Evaluation. Adopting a ROSTE approach ensures that strategic communication practitioners follow a deliberate, step-by-step process in the planning, execution, and ongoing maintenance of a project. This approach can work for the building and maintenance of online communities, too. Here’s how:

  • Research is an important first step – and an ongoing concern – for any online community manager. He or she should know the background of the community (demographics, etc.), its motivations, its history, and so on. He or she should also know about other case studies in online community growth and management, in order to learn the lessons of other practitioners and communities. Discovering this information requires undertaking situational analyses (e.g., SWOT analysis, social/political/economic analysis), gathering secondary/background resources, and conducting original empirical studies of the community.
  • Objectives should always be in place and should be revised regularly to respond to situational changes and organizational goals. Objectives should always be measurable and have defined time frames, and they should be informed by research. An example of a measurable objective: “To grow the online community by 20% in the next 3 months.”
  • Strategies are the ways in which the online community manager will approach these objectives. This includes overall messaging or plans of attack. Strategies are crafted to meet the objectives, should be grounded in research, and should involve creative problem solving.
  • Tactics are the on-the-ground methods for implementing the strategies (in order to meet the objectives, which are based on research. See how it’s all connected?). Tactics are the tools and means for executing the process.
  • Evaluation is as important as any other step in the process. Since objectives are always measurable, evaluation plans should seek to assess whether objectives were met. Evaluation might entail passive data gathering (e.g., through Web analytics) or active empirical methods (e.g., surveys, interviews, content analysis). As objectives are evaluated as successful or not, these findings become part of the future research file, and the cycle begins again. Though a linear or cyclical process described here, these processes are frequently smashed together, are iterative, and are constantly being revised to meet changing circumstances. The point is to remember that it’s a deliberate process with discrete components that connect to each other.

Tools of the Trade

Online community managers make use of a number of tools/tactics to do their job effectively. These include using message boards and chat spaces (anywhere the community members are communicating), using the tools of traditional media relations (press releases, etc.), and using customer service techniques for dealing with issues in the community in rapid fashion. Tools also include research and evaluation tools, such as social media monitoring software (e.g. Radian6), Web analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Omniture), and a whole host of research methods (e.g., archival work, surveys, interviews, focus groups, online ethnography, case studies).

Why Good Online Community Managers Matter

Online communities are bubbling with creative potential. Online communities may be collectively intelligent, too, able to accomplish more than a host of individuals working alone might. It’s important for online community managers to know what motivates these communities, what their potential is, and how they can leverage these communities for business purposes or for the public good. We see this taking place today in crowdsourcing arrangements, in public participation programs for governance, and in a number of other co-creative activities.

Online community managers have a duty to make the best of these communities, and I believe the perspective of strategic communication has a lot to offer this emerging profession.


Bobbitt, R., & Sullivan, R. (2009). Developing the public relations campaign: A team-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). The excellence theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 21-62). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). Excellent public relations and effective organization: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Heath, R. L., & Coombs, W. T. (2006). Strategic relationship building: An ethical organization communicating effectively. Today’s public relations: An introduction (pp. 1-40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ledingham, J. A. (2003). Explicating relationship management as a general theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(2), 181-198.
Marston, J. (1963). The nature of public relations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Parkinson, M. G., & Ekachai, D. (2006). International and intercultural public relations: A campaign case approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

The Ethics of Class Projects with “Real World” Clients

Many university courses now require students to work with real-world clients. This is especially true in professional schools (e.g., journalism, public health, government, business). The public relations students in our journalism school, for example, will work with at least two client organizations during their time in the major: once in the PR Writing course to produce tactical materials for community non-profit and campus organizations (through the university’s service-learning center), and once in the PR Campaigns capstone class, where they develop a campaign proposal for a client of the instructor’s choosing.

But are there ethical considerations with this kind of class-client work? Certainly. There’s a broad set of concerns that applies to non-profit and for-profit clients, and then there is a whole other level of concern with for-profits.

Broad Concerns about Class-Client Work

When students enroll in a course that features client work, they usually don’t have much say in who the client is. It’s the instructor who often chooses the client, or sometimes it’s a set list of clients assigned to the class by a campus-wide service-learning center or an already established relationship between the department and a community client. This can be problematic for students, especially if they disagree with the mission and values of the client. This is the case whether the client is non-profit or for-profit.

Most instructors are wise to avoid organizations that many students may find controversial, such as organizations with religious missions and organizations with explicit political leanings on hot button issues (e.g., abortion, guns, same-sex marriage, immigration). But some instructors, who may have close connections to these organizations through their research agendas or community service work, will assign these clients to the class anyway.

On the one hand, an instructor can make the case that “PR practitioners, especially junior-level ones, rarely have a say in what clients they are assigned to work with, and this a lesson in learning to be professional and separate work and personal opinion.” I don’t buy this, though. If a student has a deeply held opinion that, say, gay marriage is wrong, then it is my obligation, even if I completely disagree with them, that the student be allowed to seek an alternative client rather than work with a gay rights advocacy group. I think the discussion about “PR practitioners rarely get to pick their clients” is appropriate in these cases, but I don’t think, after some attempt to persuade a student, that student should be required to work with a client he or she cannot reconcile with. This is especially true for courses that are required to satisfy a major, and especially if the student does not have another section of the class to switch to or some other option.

Why? Because even in the professional world people have a right to opt out of working with a client they have strong personal beliefs about. Many firms have policies about this that allow employees to switch clients for personal reasons. And practitioners are always free to quit the job. But a student who is about to graduate doesn’t have quite the same kind of freedom to walk away.

Another broad concern about class-client work is the disclosure of conflicts of interest to students. Students are entitled to know if the instructor or academic department is receiving some benefit for working with a particular client. If a department sees the client organization as a development/fundraising prospect and this class-client project may help push that client toward a big donation to the department, then this should be disclosed to students. In some cases, too, an instructor may serve on the board of a client organization, or he/she may be benefiting from insider access to the client organization for the purposes of conducting research, or any number of benefits. These should be disclosed to students, as well. And students should have the freedom to choose whether they work with the client in light of these disclosures.

Specific For-Profit Client Concerns

When a class’ client is a for-profit business, there’s an added layer of ethical considerations. Class-client relationships are supposed to be mutually beneficial. Students gain valuable experience with real clients and build portfolios of work that help them find jobs or get into grad school. And the client gets some kind of work product, which can include research, strategic consultation, ready-to-use PR and advertising materials, websites, and so on. These clients can sometimes see enormous benefits from the work of students. If a client is a for-profit business, this means a surge in profits, all based on the work done, for free, by students.

In a public university, where a state’s taxpayers partially cover the cost of attending college, this for-profit relationship becomes problematic. What is essentially going on, albeit indirectly, is that taxpayers pay a university to educate students, and part of that education involves students doing free work for businesses, who in turn make a profit off of that labor. Indirectly, this means that businesses are getting some taxpayer money through the filter of the university classroom, all without the public being informed that this is going on. And all based, usually, on an instructor’s personal preference for a business that will reap the benefits. Yes, taxpayer dollars are given to businesses all the time, including by public universities, which pay vendors for various products and services to help the institution function. But these arrangements follow specific acquisition guidelines from the state, including broad RFPs and fair dealing with historically underutilized businesses (i.e., minority owned businesses) in the state. When an instructor selects a for-profit client for his/her class to work for, this fair dealing is not happening, and taxpayers would have a difficult time finding this out.

And now that corporations are officially people and money is speech, there’s no telling what these  for-profit clients are likely to do with the benefits of their free student labor. At the end of the day, it’s just simply not right for students and taxpayers to pay universities money so that universities can put students to work for free improving the bottom line of businesses, who in turn owe nothing back to the university or the state.

The implications of working with for-profit clients should be explained to students, and students should have a right to opt-out and pursue other clients.

But How Will Students Gain Experience Working with For-Profits?

There’s a valid point here. If students go through an entire PR program, for example, and all they ever do is work with non-profits, then how will they be equipped to work with for-profits when they graduate? Well, to a large degree, non-profit PR and for-profit PR is similar. It’s a similar campaign process, similar concerns, etc. But there are differences. Here’s how students can get this experience:

  1. They can get internships with for-profit businesses. This is the most common thing students do to get for-profit experience. So long as it’s communicated to students that they won’t be getting much (if any) for-profit client experience in the major, then students should know to seek these experiences on their own. This is what internship credits are for. (But wait – if a student gets internship credit and no pay to work for a business, isn’t that the same issue? Kind of, yeah. But at least the taxpaying public is more aware of what internships are about. The definition and scope of what an internship is appears in a department’s course catalog, which is approved by the university and thus endorsed by the state and its taxpayers. But the scope of a PR campaigns course, according to the catalog, is about teaching the process of a campaign, not necessarily about doing work with a for-profit business. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Plus, students are also free to choose who they work with and if they do an internship at all.)
  2. Instructors can offer a non-profit and a for-profit option in a class. If I assign a for-profit client to my PR Campaigns class, for instance, I always make sure there’s a non-profit client option. Basically, I have two clients for students to choose between. I also make full disclosures to my students. I think this element of freedom solves a lot of the problem. No student can really complain that they were forced to improve the profits of a business in order to get a degree from a public university.

In sum, there are things to watch out for when classes work with real world clients. Conflicts of interest with any client – for-profit or non-profit – should be disclosed to students, and students should be free to do something else if they don’t agree with the client. That “something else” could be working independently with another client, taking another section of the course, or something comparable. For-profit clients present an entirely different set of concerns, and students (and the public) should know these concerns and have similar freedoms. And if students want to get experience with a for-profit client, they can do this in at least two different ways, without being forced into anything.

Announcing a new journal

I know, I know. There are far too many academic journals out there already, and so few people actually read them. Blah, blah, blah. I’m a bit of a hypocrite, but I’m proud to say I’ve now gotten a new academic journal off the ground. It’s called Case Studies in Strategic Communication, and it’ll be a peer-reviewed journal focusing only on case studies – not research papers – in the broad domain of strategic communication. You might know strategic communication better by its many other identities: public relations, advertising, marketing, IMC, and on and on.

So think about what you’ve done as a strategic communication professional or what you’ve studied as a strategic communication scholar, and put it in case form. Then put it in an email, and send it to me. Here’s the full CFP:

CFP for New Journal:

Manuscripts are now being accepted for the first volume of Case Studies in Strategic Communication, a new online, peer-reviewed journal.

Case Studies in Strategic Communication (CSSC) is dedicated to the study of strategic communication through the case study form. Case studies illustrate the strategies, tactics, and execution of communication campaigns through in-depth coverage of a single situation. CSSC is a peer-reviewed online publication housed at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Case studies have long been central to the study of strategic communication, but these cases have been scattered across textbooks and websites, are quickly outdated, are not fully representative of the many facets of strategic communication, and lack a common format useful for teachers and scholars. Through the ongoing publication of strategic communication case studies online, CSSC aims to develop a living resource of diverse case materials for teachers, scholars, and practitioners.

As technological convergence and industry trends demand the integration of several branches of strategic communication in everyday practice, it is necessary to consider the approach to strategic communication holistically. Thus, CSSC welcomes case studies dealing with any of the following disciplines: public relations, marketing, advertising, integrated marketing communication, social media campaigns, crisis communication, special events planning, development and fundraising, internal or employee communication, investor relations, community relations, media relations, online community management, publicity, and more.

There is no limit to topical coverage, and CSSC hopes to develop a resource that touches on as many industries, tactics, geographic regions, and diverse populations as possible. CSSC seeks case studies concerning all sectors, too: private companies (large and small), publicly traded corporations, non-profit organizations (large and small), political campaigns, government agencies (local and national), and educational institutions.

In addition to success stories, CSSC also seeks case studies that explore failures, shortcomings, missed opportunities, and crises. Stories of failure are not often told in case study collections, but they sometimes yield the best lessons.

CSSC publishes cases in the tradition of Harvard Business School case studies or the Arthur W. Page Society case competition. The journal does not publish traditional scholarly research papers. CSSC publishes long case studies (3,000-8,000 words) covering full campaigns or programs, as well as short case studies (1,000-2,500 words) tightly focused on a single strategy, tactic, research method, or evaluation method used in real strategic communication programs.

Submissions are welcome from scholars, students, practitioners, and teachers of strategic communication. Submissions are accepted and published on a rolling basis. Visit to learn more about the journal. Contact the editor, Daren Brabham, with any questions: csscjournal

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

It’s that time of year when students ask teachers and employers for recommendation letters. Well, it’s always that time of year, isn’t it? References are important, whether you’re hunting for a job, internship, scholarship, or a spot in grad school. There’s a right way to ask someone to vouch for you, and I hope this post makes your future reference-asking go more smoothly.

References or Recommendation Letters?

Many jobs/internships/scholarships/schools may require you to provide the contact information for any number of references (if they don’t say a number, you can always ask what they’d prefer, but the default is usually three) rather than to provide full letters of recommendation. This is ideal, I think, because it’s less of a drain on the whole of society than having people write full letters, especially for highly competitive programs. Let me explain what I mean by “drain.” When I was applying for professor jobs–and I applied to quite a few–most of the schools required three full letters of recommendation. Now, in this job market, any given professor job may get 50 or more applicants. Some search committee/employer will have to sort through these applicants, and they will probably make a short list of 10 or fewer applicants they think are worthy based on their resumes/CVs. It is only at that point that the committee will actually turn to the letters to read them. So what does this mean for, say, the other 40+ people who weren’t shortlisted? It means that each of their three recommendation letters essentially goes to waste. That’s 120 letters. That’s 120 different people out there who spent maybe as much as an hour preparing and writing your letter of recommendation. That’s 120 hours of human intellect and labor wasted. It’s a big drain on society in general. I much prefer organizations that only ask for the contact information of references up front. This is much easier to provide (i.e., it only involves the person providing the recommendation to say “yes, put me down as a reference” initially), and it’s a lot more respectful of people’s time than the full letter charade. The reality is that employers will probably call these references anyway for additional commentary beyond the letter they wrote, so might as well just cut the letter part out entirely and stick to the phone calls.

But I digress. Back to my point.

Some application processes ask for a list of references, and some ask for full letters. Either way, you need to ask the person who is recommending you if they’re comfortable doing so. This means you need to get prior approval to use their name before you start spraying your application around on And if they give you full access to use them as a reference widely, it’s still a nice gesture to send them a quick list of jobs you applied for. That way, when the recommender gets a call, they have some kind of clue that it’s coming. Full letters of recommendation require a lot more work on your part. That’s what the rest of this post is for.

Asking for a Recommendation

When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation for you (or if you ask if you can list them as a reference on your application), you need to make sure you’re not just asking for “a letter.” You need to ask for “a positive letter.” This is a picky point, but there are some people out there that simply say “sure, I can write you a letter,” and then they write a lukewarm or even negative letter. After all, you didn’t ask them to write a positive letter, did you? (I know this is crappy, but it happens. It happened to me once, and I found out about it and learned my lesson.)

The best way to ask, I think, is to meet with the recommender and tell them a little about what it is you’re applying for and why you think you’re a good fit. You don’t need to put on a salesy pitch about why you’re the right fit for what you’re applying for (because they don’t get to make the decision, you know), but it’s important to give some kind of a rationale for why you’re pursuing the thing you’re pursuing. Then, actually ask the following: “I think you can speak to my strengths and my fit for this [scholarship/internship/school/job], and I would appreciate your support. Would you feel confident providing a positive letter of recommendation for me for this?” When you phrase it this way, you give the recommender the opportunity to answer you frankly. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they think you suck, then you’ve given them the opportunity to tell you right then and there that they’re not up for the task. If they don’t feel confident writing for you because they feel that they don’t know enough about you, then you’ve given them the opportunity to ask you for more information before they agree to write your letter. And if they do feel confident writing a letter for you, then you’ve kind of boxed them in to writing only a positive letter, which is what you want.

The majority of the time, though, the person you’ve asked to write a letter for you likes you, respects your work, and they don’t have a problem vouching for you. Let’s move on.

Who to Ask

First and foremost, the people you ask to write letters of recommendation for you need to really know you. They need to be able to write a detailed, personal letter of support, not a generic letter that they write for all students. This means that if the best person to recommend you is a Ph.D. student who taught you in their class rather than some distinguished professor who you barely know, then you ask the Ph.D. student. It’s ideal not to have an entire slate of letter writers with “lowly titles,” but a detailed, personal letter from someone lower in the ranks is much more valuable than a generic letter from someone who has a big title or some kind of political prominence. And, of course, the ideal ideal scenario is to have a slate of letter writers who are both powerful/respected/have big titles AND who know you well enough to write a detailed letter.

Second, you want to aim for some breadth, too. If you’re applying for a graduate program, for instance, it’s OK to have a letter or two come from people NOT in higher education. If you have an employer who can write a good letter, include it. But if it’s for a graduate program, you definitely need at least one (and ideally a majority) of your letters from someone in academia. Try to build a collection of letters than can speak to your many strengths. If one recommender knows your research ability really well, one knows your teaching ability well, one knows your work leadership experience, and one has taught you in a class, then you have a great collection of letters that speak to the whole picture of who you are.

When I applied for professor jobs at research universities, I had letters from my dissertation advisor (who was kind of expected to write a letter for any professor job I applied to…it’s a red flag if your advisor doesn’t write you a letter), a professor from another discipline I had worked on a grant project with, a professor from yet another discipline who knew my research well, and a professor who knew my teaching and service very well. For professor jobs at teaching-oriented universities, I asked a slightly different crew to write for me, focusing more on my teaching abilities and less on my research prowess. Think of the image you want to put forward. Find the people to bring together to help you put forth than image. Have them write the letters.

When to Ask

As soon as possible. People need at least a week to write a letter of recommendation. Two weeks or more is preferred. And if you ask more than a month in advance, it’s worth following up closer to the deadline to remind them. Asking for letters less than two weeks before a deadline ain’t nice.

Be Organized

Once you’ve got some people on the hook to write letters, you need to get them the info they need. At minimum, this means sending them some information about the scholarship/school/job you’re applying for and instructions for where/how to mail the letter, including a deadline. Ideally, though, you should provide as much material as possible about the scholarship/school/job AND about yourself so that the letter writer can tailor their letter. Remember, the goal is for your recommenders to write detailed, personal letters, so let them know more about you and your reason for applying. Give them a copy of your application or goal statement or writing samples if you’re comfortable sharing that with them.

If you ask for multiple letters for various things you’re applying for, I also suggest providing the letter writers a spreadsheet or calendar with deadlines. When I asked for a bunch of letters when I applied for professor jobs, I sent each recommender an Excel spreadsheet listing details about each letter. For each letter, I provided the following information:

  • the name of the department and university I was applying to (e.g., University of North Carolina School of Journalism & Mass Communication)
  • the name of the actual position I was applying for (e.g., assistant professor public relations)
  • the contact person to address the letter to (e.g., “Dr. So-and-So, search committee chair” or if there isn’t a specific person listed, just “search committee members”)
  • the job description (e.g., a link to it if it was online)
  • a few notes about the position (e.g., insider info you may have, whether you met the employer at a job fair a few months ago, who you may know at the company, and so on)
  • a few notes about what you’d love the letter writer to say (e.g., I put things like “for this letter, I know they’re looking for someone with new media expertise in addition to public relation competence, so I’d love for you to really emphasize how my research addresses new media and society”)
  • who else I had asked to write a letter for me (this helps the letter writer see who else is writing for you. If they know, for instance, that you’ve asked someone else who knows your teaching skills better than they do, then they feel less pressure to cover that issue in their letter)
  • instructions for submitting the letter (e.g., an email address to send it to; an online system to upload it to; whether the envelope needs to be sealed, signed, and given to you to include in one large application packet; a mailing address if it needs to be mailed; and so on. Providing them a pre-printed envelope with postage on it is a nice touch, especially if you’re asking for tons of mailed letters from people, but generally your recommenders can spring for the stamp)
  • the deadline for sending the letter (and if it’s a “received by” deadline vs. a “postmark deadline,” you should explain this, too)

Following the Rules & Following Up

Follow all the rules for an application process. If they absolutely do NOT want more than three letters of recommendation, then don’t send four. But if they just simply say “three letters required,” then you shouldn’t necessarily feel boxed in to just three letters. If you think a collection of four letters speaks to your strengths the best, then send all four. But try not to send five or more for a three-letter application.

If your application and letters are submitted as part of an online system (which is increasingly common), then you can probably track your status to see if/when letters are uploaded and your application is complete. But if this is not the case, it is perfectly acceptable to inquire with the employer/scholarship/school whether the letters were received and your application is complete and valid. If you know all of your letter writers mailed their letters in a week ago and you haven’t heard from the employer/school/scholarship that they’ve received them and your application is good to go, it’s OK to shoot someone at that organization an email and ask. This isn’t an opportunity to sell yourself; it’s just an opportunity to innocently ask if your application was received in good order.

If you follow these guidelines for asking for a letter of recommendation, you’ll be in good shape. And I certainly know if more of my students used this format, I’d be in good shape. I’m interested to know if this information is helpful. Leave a comment here if this was useful for you.