Friday’s Twitter meltdown in the UK is going into the public relations textbooks, you can be assured of that.
It was a perfect example of how to not only fail to adhere to your own strategy, but also to aggravate and make the situation worse.
And this whole thing erupted over school dinners. Amazing.
The short version of the story is, nine-year-old Martha Payne, a pupil at Lochgilphead Primary School in the west of Scotland had started a blog taking photos of her school meals and rating them. This became a worldwide hit, apparently, and prompted one of Scotland’s national papers, the Daily Record, to run a playful article about Martha meeting celebrity chef Nick Nairn and laughing over flaming dishes in the kitchen.
But the headline, “Time to fire the dinner ladies”, was taken the wrong way by local authority Argyll & Bute Council, who banned Martha from taking photos of her meals.
That was their first mistake: censoring a nine-year-old who probably has more popularity on the web than many newspapers these days.
So that prompted the first part of the Twitter backlash, using the hashtag #neverseconds, the name of Martha’s blog. And then, just before 11am, came the council’s second mistake – a press release so ill judged, I’m sure every PR instructor on the planet now has a copy, though it has been taken down off the council’s website.
Their reaction was clearly against the newspaper article, but looked as though it was against Martha. And it was full of basic grammar mistakes.
They even managed to spell “dessert” wrong. So, the authority in charge of local education, in defending their school meals, can’t spell the words for those meals? Priceless.
It started: “Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs.
The Council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils however this escalation means we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing. In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.”
As everyone online pointed out, this is a nine-year-old girl.
At this point, #neverseconds was trending top in the UK, with “Argyll and Bute” and “Martha Payne” hovering nearby. Throughout all this, Martha also had a charity page set up to raise funds for Mary’s Meals which provides meals in African communities and helps build kitchens.
Martha (officially, though certainly with parental help) set a goal of £7000, the cost of one school kitchen in Malawi or elsewhere. Within hours, she had enough for more than five. Currently there’s enough for 10.
By 1pm, the elected councillor who is leader of Argyll and Bute was on BBC Radio 4 and said he ordered a reversal of the ban on Martha taking photos. It tried to praise her and her “entrepreneurial” spirit, but mostly the council had become a laughing stock. The Twitterati claimed victory for Martha, who was silent throughout the day because she was at school, presumably oblivious to what was going on. Plus, nine-year-old tend not to tweet that much. If she did, it would no doubt put the council to shame in maturity, and spelling ability.
What conclusions can we draw from this textbook example?
1. Never turn a nine-year-old girl into your opponent. Even if the problem was her dad, for example, you don’t allow public attention to go to the child. You’ll never win public sympathy that way.
2. When being bombarded by critical tweets, don’t react with a link to a press release you’ve not properly thought out.
3. When in doubt, refer to your own social media policy, presented at a conference the year before.
An alleged slide from the council’s chief communications officer on responding to blogs states that, in reaction to “unhappy customers”, you should “restore reputations – rectify the situation, respond and act on a solution”. You can see the chart here, and background on that officer here —she reportedly had staff set up secondary social media accounts to “spy” on critics of the council.
I’m always skeptical when people declare that social media won revolutions in the Arab world, or helped the Occupy movement, etc. It suits people who use the technology to believe they’re personally to thank for, helping something half a world away.
In this case however, Twitter fed a backlash, which prompted the press release, which added fuel to the backlash. The web could react far quicker than any other media in such a situation. In fact, there was no point writing much about it all until the U-turn within hours. This story largely operated within the Twittersphere and the PR attempts to react failed miserably.
Should all schools be at the mercy of blogging nine-year-old girls? No.
They are still young and impressionable and may not be able to understand complexities such as education budgets, the food supply, or even the potential risks of being a global attraction as a child.
By all accounts, the school worked very well with Martha on this blog.
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging that level of technical skill in a child, at all, nor the creativity involved. Teachers, parents and others can work with the young person to see the different aspects of being a blogger, and still being a pupil.
Argyll and Bute’s PR machine and administrators didn’t seem to do that, or didn’t do it very well. Perhaps someone will send them a textbook on public relations and they can read up on the chapter about #neverseconds
— and never repeat their mistakes again.