I bet most of you hadn’t heard of Argyll and Bute council this morning. But by lunchtime they were all over the internet. And lunch is at the heart of this story.

Martha Payne, a 9 year old from Argyll in Scotland, began blogging about her school dinners on her NeverSeconds blog in April. She uploaded a photo of each meal and rated it for healthiness and other criteria. Martha also used the blog to fundraise for a charity called Mary’s Meals. The blog was picked up by national newspapers and was praised by Jamie Oliver. Children from around the world began sending Martha photos of their school dinners. Yesterday, though, Martha’s headteacher, directed by Argyll and Bute council, told her that she had to stop taking photos for her blog, which she wrote about in a post entitled ‘Goodbye.’

Unsurprisingly, this led to a backlash against the council on social media, who then issued a heavy handed statement about the ‘unwarranted attacks’ on its catering service, which it claimed had ‘led catering staff to fear for their jobs.’ As you can imagine, this backfired spectacularly for Argyll and Bute, with thousands of people tweeting their support for Martha. A couple of hours later, council leader Roddy McCuish went on The World at One to retract the ban on Martha’s photos, stating that, ‘There is no place for censorship in this council and never will be whilst I am leader.’

Dinnergate, as it is now known, is already being cited as a case study in poor PR crisis management and I’ve been thinking about what we can learn from it as communicators. In my view, this is an example of how not to handle criticism received via social media. My lessons learned here are:

  1. Understand that you are not in full control of the conversation on social media. Argyll and Bute obviously thought that if they stopped Martha taking photographs, that would kill the story. Wrong. It just made Martha’s blog even bigger. And the conversation about it simply moved to twitter, and grew. You can’t stop people talking about the things they want to discuss. And this principle was true even before social media was invented.
  2. Taking a tough corporate line won’t work when responding to social media criticism. Think about how your response will be perceived. Social media is a warm, informal medium. Argyll and Bute’s statement was criticised for being hard and defensive on Twitter. In the rush to protect its reputation, the council lost sight of how the public would view their actions against a 9 year old girl.
  3. Use social media criticism as an opportunity to engage with your audience. Someone tweeted today that, ‘Social media is the best piece of market research you never commissioned.’ Getting unprompted, honest feedback, like Martha’s blog, is invaluable, even if it reveals things that you might not want to hear. I would have advised Argyll and Bute to meet Martha and discuss how she thought their school dinners could be improved.

(NB There are some great tips about responding to social media criticism on the Social Media Examiner site.)

School dinners are a relatable, emotive topic. Despite the U-turn on the photographs for Martha’s blog, I’m not sure that this is the end of the story. Which means that Argyll and Bute still have time to show how they have learned further from their mistake. Meanwhile, Martha’s blog is reported to have had 2.75 million page views and she has raised over £49,000 for charity, much of it donated in the past 24 hours. You can donate via Martha’s JustGiving page here.

Most importantly, I hope that none of this puts Martha Payne off blogging. She is a good writer and I love her blog- it’s so simple but effective. She’s clearly destined to be a brilliant charity communities manager or fundraiser one day. Keep blogging Martha!