You have choices when starting articles. You might have an obscure but dramatic opening to get attention, but I’ve used “It was a dark and stormy night”, and I’ve only just done one beginning “The scene: a dark cobbled lane with dim lamps…”.
You can open with a succinct statement of the article’s factual source – “A senior Labour politician has resigned after tweeting…”.
You might begin with a generalised summary of the wider problem being addressed – “The prevalence, reach and immediacy of social media, and the balance between its benefits and risk, must be addressed by organisations…”.
Or, perhaps, you might begin by explaining your headline. Let’s start with that.
The line comes from a 1967 Pink Floyd song See Emily Play. Its opening line is Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh. Here’s a video of the band’s then members (when Syd Barrett was at his height and David Gilmour had yet to join).
We see Nick Mason banging non-existent drums in the middle of nowhere and trying to catch nothing in his hat – pretty good analogies for the Rochester and Strood by-election really; everybody lost something, including the winner, who mislaid 7,000 votes compared to his last election.
The Emily involved there was Emily Thornberry, Shadow Attorney General. Yesterday, you could See Emily Play with her iPhone and, with one quick tweet, wreck her career and bring the Labour party from despair into ridicule. You can get the story here.
There are lots of things to criticise the Labour opposition for at the moment – a bit of, you know, opposition, wouldn’t go amiss – and it has slid in a matter of weeks from being a political force to a fading circus led by a clown. Ed Miliband, already under attack for his presentation and management skills, was to go on to say how much he respected white vans, which was a peculiar piece of crisis management.
There is a lot here which is unfair. I am not concerned, however, with what is fair but with the power of social media for ill as well as for good, and with the reinforcement which this story gives to my long-expressed view that organisations of whatever kind must get to grips with social media. By coincidence, Twitter has just made almost every Tweet discoverable and the subject was due for an eDiscovery article here anyway. I will content myself for now with just planting the idea that discovery / disclosure has just acquired a new element. Is Twitter important? Well, it has just brought down a senior politician. What might it do for your company?
A bit of political context might be required – half my audience is foreign, and the UK political scene confuses even those of us who live here at the moment. What turned an apparently innocuous tweet into a political gaffe which took all eyes off the Conservative’s poor performance just when Labour might have won some political capital? What lessons are there for organisations about preventing such disasters and about damping them down?
The Rochester and Strood by-election
The setting is a by-election in a constituency called Rochester and Strood, caused by the defection of a Conservative MP to the UK Independence Party (my dictation system came up with “Rochester and screwed” which implies that its algorithms have a shrewd sense of context). UKIP was once described by Prime Minister David Cameron as comprising “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Two of his MPs have defected to UKIP, triggering by-elections. The first one was re-elected under the UKIP banner and the context for the present story is the second such by-election.
The Labour opposition party was set to suffer as badly as the Conservatives in Rochester and Strood. Its historic core vote includes that most conservative being, the working class type who likes things as they used to be and who feels threatened by the effect which (as he or she sees it) immigration has had on jobs, housing and infrastructure, as well as on more nebulous aspects of life as it was in 1958. The type is known colloquially as “white van man” and Rochester and Strood has plenty of them. White van man has adopted the white and red flag associated with St George, partly as a football emblem, and partly as a symbol of the England they think they have lost.
Needless to say, not everyone who drives a white van and displays a white flag with a red cross fits the stereotype, but politicians and news outlets like simple totems; either of these things, the van or the flag, has become a shorthand for a particular type of person, and the presence of both van and flag is conclusive. As it happens, this is exactly the type of person whom Labour has been losing to UKIP, and you would think that fact alone would trigger a little caution on the part of a politician with the power of Twitter at her fingertips and nearly 15,000 followers.
Labour’s task here was to lose gracefully, to set clear ground between themselves and UKIP and, by having the only half-presentable candidate in the race, to navigate the turbulent waters of immigration and class which presented themselves. The polls showed that a high proportion of those intending to vote UKIP as a by-election protest would not to do so at the general election, so a long-term view was necessary. Politicians. alas, do not do long-term views. Tomorrow’s headlines are as far as they go.
Social media as organisational risk
Let’s deviate for a moment into why the use of social media is on my agenda. A tweet is a “document” of the same potential evidential importance as an email or a Word document. One of the talks I give is about the dilemma faced by employers on this subject: they ought to value the messaging opportunities in the hands of responsible employees, and the reach which social media gives to the organisation. That benefit, however, comes with some serious risks; as the opportunities multiply for instant communications so do the risks of something emerging which might at the least be embarrassing and which at the worst might give marketing, regulatory or contractual difficulties to the organisation. The problem is magnified by the difficulty not just of controlling the output but of finding it, particularly in circumstances where the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend means that doubts may arise as to the ownership of the device and its data.
The message to organisations is that they must set policies which steer a course between the benefits and the drawbacks of social media. Even as the white van issue was developing in Rochester and Strood, a panel was taking place at the Georgetown Advanced eDiscovery Institute on this very subject (I was watching it on Twitter, of course).
Emily Thornberry was Shadow Attorney General and was a successful barrister before achieving political recognition. It would be fair to say that, although I recognised her name, I could not accurately have identified her face, her party or her position. Her political career, as set out in Wikipedia, implies the sort of MP that most of us would be pleased to have regardless of our politics.
Emily Thornberry was one of the many senior politicians sent down to fight the good fight at Rochester and Strood. She tweeted as she went – here’s an hubristic one about David Cameron:
Here’s the one that caused the trouble – a white van parked outside an ordinary voter’s house bedecked with St George flags and vulgar columns. The accompanying text simply said “Image from #Rochester”. We can forgive her, I think, for the fact that it was actually in Strood.
Let’s spare ourselves the debate as to what she meant by this. At best it was simply a tourist’s picture such as I have been tweeting recently from Prague and Dublin. At worst, it was a snobby sneer by a senior representative of a political party already under fire for losing touch with its working-class roots, sent by woman living in a house worth more than £2 million in a smart part of London. One of the first headlines read “Only here for the sneer”. You don’t have to agree with this (I don’t) to see that the tweet was asking for it.
The politics matter to me – the last thing I want is a Labour government with Ed Balls as Chancellor, but the alternative is a Conservative one with the ignorant and nasty Chris Grayling as Justice Minister or Home Secretary.
We need a strong opposition, and I have watched with despair in recent weeks at Ed Miliband’s inability to be coherent and threatening.
To me, however, Emily Thornberry’s tweet was just an illustration of the social media risks run by all organisations. Although the UK’s second political party and its Shadow Attorney General do not fit the stereotype of most employer / employee relationships, the principles are the same. I tweeted this:
The rest of the story is quickly told. Thornberry apologised, and the whole thing would have died away by the morning, drowned in the wider (and very much more important) story of an openly racist party winning a by-election. Instead, the idiot Miliband demanded her resignation. As Paul Bernal put it in his blog post #TweetlikeanMP?
we’ve lost another woman from frontline politics, and another of those increasingly rare lawmakers who actually understands law has departed for the backbenches, at a time when parliament is trying to put through legal absurdities like Chris Grayling’s ‘Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill’ (SARAH).
What lessons for organisations?
Like Paul Bernal, I see that the immediate implication will be that
MPs will retreat into their shells on social media [and we will] see less humanity, less engagement, less humour – and much more ‘tweeting like an MP’ from everyone. An opportunity for politics to become more engaged will be lost.
Commercial and other organisations will probably react by forbidding staff to use Twitter and Facebook, and we will be stuck with the meaningless pap which makes up most of the output of marketing departments – the humanity and engagement whose loss which Paul Bernal laments is vital for commercial organisations at a time when we are all sick of conventional marketing. In my own industry, there is a clear divide between those who use social media properly as a multi-channelled way of engaging with potential clients, and those who still chuck their marketing crap over the wall as if with a trebuchet, hoping that some of it will stick.
What we would like to see is investment in policies and training about the use of social media, backed up by an instantly-available advisory resource for those who need it – not the situation cleverly captured in this cartoon by Tom Fishburne:
Organisations also need training at a higher level in how to react when something like this happens – how not to turn a minor slip into a crisis. Whatever Thornberry meant by her tweet, she should have had an instinct telling her to keep off white vans and flags. Miliband should have had the guts firstly to calm down (and let everyone else calm down) and secondly to think beyond the next day’s papers.
The business implications of social media
All that, and we haven’t even started on the discovery implications. Pretend you are an organisation with an employee who has, deliberately or otherwise, sent out something on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn which drops you in the shit – it breaches some regulatory duty, contradicts a corporate position taken in a stock exchange document, admits to a breach of contract, or boasts of some malicious activity such as bullying or sexism within the company for which the company might be held responsible.
If you could not have stopped it, you ought to know how you will deal with it when it happens. Can you even find it? Who owns it? What else has this person been shoving up on the web for all to see? Did you have any policies or rules and were they enforced?
Then, who will defuse the problem – deal with the press, the shareholders, the authorities? Preferably not someone who will talk movingly of his respect for white vans.
I loathe this degradation of politics, this pitifully inept conduct of those who aspire to lead us against Putin, against terrorism, against injustice. I am, however, secretly pleased when public events give hard case studies to back our generally ignored suggestions.
Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way