Organising in the age of Networked Movements

I posted last week about my decision to not renew my membership of the UK’s PR trade body, the CIPR for various reasons.

I'm currently re-considering (more to come on that one hopefully) my lapsed membership, but weighing up the pros and cons of why I didn’t renew my membership helped me crystallise a line of thought I’ve had for a few weeks.

This thought is thus: the primary problem with trade organisations such as the CIPR or NUJ is quite simply that they are organisations.

That is, they struggle (or appear to be struggling) to adapt to the challenges posed by a socially-enabled Internet precisely because their organisational structure is geared towards fulfilling a role in an industrial, non-networked world.

For example, I don’t need the CIPR to co-ordinate a venue, guestlist, speaker and refreshments in order to attend a networking vent because a network of 50 people connected via the Internet can achieve something similar – moreover, they can achieve something better by co-creating the event.

This idea is also relevant when thinking about the way political parties (in the UK) are adapting to social media. While the Labour Party is making great strides in freeing up debate and campaigning I stand by the argument that they are never going to really get social until they do one of two things.

The first, is to radically restructure the way the party organises itself. That is, turn the party from a top-down campaigning body to a purely bottom-up network of campaigners. The difference may appear subtle but the effect is radically different.

Secondly, they could do what Obama did with the Democrat Party in the 2008 Presidential Election campaign. Rather than restructure the party (although there were definitely some changes made to the way to party operates), the Obama team centralised a large part of the campaign organisation but significantly they devolved a lot of the on-the-ground ‘campaigning’ activity to its networks of supporters.

For example, quoting Micah Sifry in an excellent essay, Sarah Oates, notes “campaigns are designed to share tasks, but not authority”. Conversely “networks share authority but not tasks”. The real test, for the Obama team, Sifry notes, will come when his team looks how to carry forward the ‘shared authority’ created during the campaign into the White House. I suspect that the Obama movement will struggle to integrate its decentralised, networked, informal organisation into the traditionally top-down formality of government.

Of course, I may be wrong and we have already seen Obama’s programme initiate attempts to crowd-source policy making. But how successful this will be over the longer-term remains to be seen (and is the topic of another post!).

More significantly, this idea of sharing ‘authority’ vs sharing ‘activity’ (or tasks) illustrates that real political co-creation and networked campaigning appears – so far – to work best in opposition where parties and organisations are not fettered by the constraints of top-down government.

Having said that, I appreciate Obama is trying to change this and the UK government has a number of great social media thinkers and doers currently engaged in trying to make Government more networked. This is an interesting space and will continue to become curiouser and curioser. I plan to track progress in the UK and on the other side of the Atlantic and keep you posted on developments.

Technorati tags: Organisation, Barack Obama, CIPR, Micah Sifry, Paula Oates


  1. The problem is that there are fundamental differences between the cultures, poltical processes and party systems in the UK and US.
    Simply devolving campaign local ‘activity’ wouldn’t work in the UK. Firstly, because it has always largely been like that anyway. Secondly it ignores the whole ‘policy’ issue. The Democrats don’t have a platform/manifesto in the same way that the Labour Party does. It is much more focussed around the individual – the Primaries are where the presidential wannabes set out their stall. Labour has a complex process to ‘involve’ members, but it is the tension between setting policy centrally and agreeing it at the grassroots that is at the heart of many of the problems. That tension doesn’t exist at the same level in the US.

  2. Stuart is quite correct, although I think you’ll see the Party respond more to where the audiences are congregating, especially online.
    This will weaken the conventional constituency-based structure but not replace it.
    Simon – get blogging again!!

  3. Really interested in your take on ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ – you are taking it wider but on a same theme as asymmetric vs symmetric pr I think.
    Your relationship with CIPR feels like you are at the receiving end of an asymmetrical organisation which is feeding you what it thinks you need and persuading you it’s good.
    Your listing of what you think CIPR offers is too lightweight. We don’t need CIPR for cheap room hire. What Obama offers is figurehead leadership (the sort that Max Clifford is maybe filling in UK PR because of the lack of alternative)and that’s what CIPR should be about. Leadership at the top driven by and accountable to us at the bottom. Its agenda should be about PR issues not OTT buildings and income generation. I wonder if the structure is a bit at fault. A one year Chair who has a job to do at the same time is a big ask.

  4. Interesting questions, Caroline. I musta dmit – I would definitely agree. But as valuable as ‘figurehead leadership’ is, will it retain the same value in the future we we may all be living a much more flattened, non-hierarchical, networked world?

Speak Your Mind