A man in a black T shirt, with his face not visible, on a phone

The BBC is planning to review its social media guidelines after Gary Lineker was reinstated as Match of the Day presenter following his tweets about asylum policy. Social media is on a lot of charities’ minds following the draft social media guidance issued by the Charity Commission, which closes its consultation on 14 March. What can we learn from the Gary Lineker story about what organisations can expect from their colleagues on social media?

I’m not going to say a lot about the Charity Commission’s guidance as I’ve already written about it here. However, the Lineker story sheds light on what an increasingly messy and difficult business it can be to govern the personal social media presences of anyone associated with an organisation, be they staff or freelancer.

This is not to say that having your people on social media is a bad thing. I’ve worked with many charities where having their staff on social media is essential for partnership building, developing relationships with funders and getting to know journalists. I’ve written a fair few social media policies over the years, and they can be very effective if they have the right amount of guidance, support and accountability built in. Yet the events unfolding at the BBC have made me stop and think what organisations should do when it’s hard to enforce social media guidance. What if someone wants to tweet about an issue which represents their values, but not yours? What if this matters to them more than holding onto their job? What if their response to your carefully crafted social media policy is simply, ‘No.’

In Lineker’s case the BBC and he have reached a compromise where he will be bound by the guidelines until the social media guidelines are reviewed, although some commentators noted that he was tweeting about refugees again today. Reasonably, could the BBC have stopped him doing this? Where does the line between social justice and and politics begin?

What makes enforcing social media guidance especially hard in this day and age is that so many of us now define ourselves by what we stand for. And three years of remote working have shifted the power between employers and employees. Thanks to employee activism staff now expect to have a voice in a way that they didn’t have pre-2020.

Before you rip up your social media guidelines I have some advice on how you might want to review them post-Lineker:

Be proportionate

When the BBC launched their social media guidelines in October 2020 my first thought was that they were unworkable. Social media guidance needs to be proportionate to be effective.  If it’s not then credibility is lost. The BBC guidelines  state that staff should ‘avoid virtue signalling’ and should think twice before joining campaigns. Staff are advised to be careful with emojis in case they damage the impartiality of a post. It’s heavy handed stuff.

When you draft social media guidance for your team you have to treat them like adults. Design it with, not for them. Involve them step by step in the process and test it out on them as you go. Have frank conversations about scenarios and what you- and they- are comfortable with them saying. You’ve hired them for a reason, so back your decision and give them the tools to represent the organisation and themselves.

Discuss your values before a crisis hits

Over the years I’ve learned that a crisis rarely blows up out of the blue. It can often be the result of some internal, or external, issue that has been bubbling away for a while. In other words, it is the next chapter in the story of how your organisation is perceived.

As part of the process of co-designing your social media guidelines with staff, you need to discuss the values you all stand for and how you will live those when a comms crisis hits.

This is not an easy conversation to have and when issues are discussed which matter a great deal to individuals it requires psychological safety on both sides, and the confidence to be vulnerable. Yet you’ll be glad you discussed it now, rather than later. I’ve been around the block many times when helping charities with their online crisis communications, often in pressured, sensitive situations and you will not have the headspace to plan for this when you are in the thick of it.

When Nigel Farage criticised the RNLI for running a ‘migrant taxi service’ the charity responded that they had a moral and legal duty to rescue migrants in danger from the sea. They led with their values and this helped them raise £200k in a single day. 

A crisis can be an opportunity to reaffirm your charity’s values, and attract new supporters. This is where it can be an opportunity in disguise.

Review your governance 

What the BBC and Lineker story shows is how hard governance in the age of digital can be.

Social media is obviously just one element of  digital. Yet it’s a great example of how there can be a hive of digital activity in organisations (whether it’s digital communciations, online service delivery or product development) and yet the oversight, strategy and execution are not aligned. Try mapping out the way you do this in your charity and if you can’t visualise how these three areas are connected up, with priorities, processes and values consistent, then something has slipped. It’s an area I often see has gone wrong in our work on charity digital strategies and if you get it right it will help you achieve much stronger results.

What next?

This is not the last time we will see a high profile leader and their use of social media lead to controversy. Yet the process of how you set parameters for what your staff, trustees or volunteers do on social media does not need to be adversarial. It is not a zero sum game, where one person needs to shout louder than the other. It is not you versus them. It is about everyone’s voices coming together so that their ideas and values help you push for the change you seek.