Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Floor Staff Hit the Blogosphere: Exploratorium Explainers

One of the most popular posts on Museum 2.0 is about different kinds of institutional blogs. The fourth kind I talked about is the "personal voice blog," in which museum staff write honestly and openly about their institution and experiences. At the time, I referenced a blog from the top: the Walters Art Museum Director's blog. Gary Vikan has done a great job writing passionately (and reasonably frequently) about his observations on the museum and art world. If you are a management person, you're probably thinking he's incredibly brave for doing so. If you're lower on the totem pole, you might think it's easy for him to write what he wants--he's the Director. Presumably of all staff, he's the one in the best position to know what's appropriate, and to push that boundary when he thinks it's reasonable to do so.

I recently discovered another fabulous "personal voice blog" of quite a different nature. It's the Exploratorium Explainers' blog. Unlike Gary Vikan's individual blog, this one is written by a group of staff. Floor staff. Their topics range from exhibits they have crushes on to boring events they work to funny interactions with visitors on the floor. They post frequently, include lovely photos and slideshows, and generally do a wonderful job communicating their energy and love of the museum through their writing.

Check it out. And then, ask yourself, would my institution support a blog like this? The messaging is all museum- and science-positive, but the tone is irreverent. Some examples:
(on the "Mr. Fish" exhibit)
Ok, I’ll admit it. I was wrong. I used to doubt the exhibit “Talk to a Fish”. I thought it was super-lame- one of the lamest exhibits on the floor.

(on an evening event)
Kristin won the wittiest comment of the night award for telling me, as I bumped into the pictured summer camp poster, spilling water all over the floor in the process…”It’s a sign” Buh Duh Chchch

(on a DNA training session)
Eventually, Ryan found his groove with a style meshing the down-to-earth flavor of Fred Flintstone with the joie de vivre of Richard Simmons:

Maybe you're smiling. Maybe you're cringing. Maybe you're doing both at the same time and your face looks a little bizarre. But what's the source of fear about this kind of blog? This is a blog that empowers staff and communicates museum mission. I think the most commendable aspect of the blog is how balanced it is in tone--I never get the feeling that someone is going to go "over the top." But what if they do? Is there a marketing person with his finger on the trigger, ready to shut down an unacceptable post? Probably (I hope) not.

Personal voice blogs are the stickiest type for established institutions. There's potential for content that is deemed inappropriate, proprietary, or off-message to get out there, and since the point is to present a unique individual voice, it's hard to justify or even implement monitoring/censoring effectively.

But this is the other side of radical trust. It's not just about trusting our visitors and their contributions. It's also about trusting our own staff and colleagues to act responsibly when given an opportunity to join the museum mouthpiece. And not just the directors. Ironically, floor staff may be the MOST appropriate museum bloggers. They are the voice and face of the museum to visitors on a daily basis. They have the most connection with visitors' interests and therefore potentially the most relevant content to share with readers.

Encouraging staff, especially junior staff, to blog on behalf of the institution is a win-win for the staff and the museum. Giving staff a venue for their thoughts creates a high (museum-level) expectation quality-wise. If staff maintain personal blogs, who knows how kindly or unkindly they will reference their workplace. But if they are blogging under the masthead of the institution, they go from being freelancers to staff reporters. They want to further the institution. They want to know it's okay to do so without fear of being shut down or fired.

Some companies walk this line by offering their staff individual blog space (in which they can write about pretty much whatever they want) and then maintaining an aggregate, more publicized blog that pulls appropriate posts from the personal ones. Others start with internal blogs, keep those going until management feels comfortable, and then go public. And others set basic guidelines and then step away.

I'd love to see more floor staff blogs (and security blogs, and exhibit maintenance blogs, and...). These people are often the least empowered staff authority-wise. Supporting staff blogging is a great way to acknowledge the extent to which they are the ones who make memorable visitors experiences. And the Explainers' blog showcases a group of people who are dedicated to their institution and grateful for the opportunity to be one of its mouthpieces. I can only imagine that the blog is improving staff retention.

Not convinced? I'll leave the final word to the Explainers:
Finally, I want to say how proud it made me feel that the explainers, on our own, had continued the spirit of innovation that defines the special place we work at.
Good for them.

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

what about if you're museum employer wants to clamp down on you're afterwork bloggin? can they do that? will I get fired? no 1st amendmant?

Nina Simon said...

Good question, and I'd love to hear other comments on it (especially from boss-style people!). The short answer is that you don't have many protected rights if you are an at-will employee.

Here's a CNET article about blogger rights and troubles with the workplace. Interesting facts include: unionized and govt employees may enjoy greater protection when blogging, as do residents of CA, NY, CO, MO, and ND. A very small number of people have actually been fired for blogging.

And some of my thoughts:

1. Be proactive. Tell your employer about your blog early so they won't be surprised. Don't treat it like a secret--treat it like another part of your life that has potential positives and negatives. If my boss had the choice, she'd ban me from rock climbing before blogging--but she accepts that both of those are potentially risky parts of my life.

2. Ask your employer if there is a blogging policy, and if not, offer to help develop one. Again, surprise is always less pleasant--for you and your boss--than certainty. Pitch them on the positives of you blogging. Many museum higher-ups don't have much exposure to blogging and may approach it with unnecessary fear that you can help ameliorate.

3. Blog anonymously or for a smaller audience if necessary. If blogging is a personal release for you to communicate with friends, think about whether you need a competely public blog.