If your firm’s not on Twitter and you end up in a social media firestorm…

Summary

It’s not just big business – government contractors are now finding themselves in the firing line.

I’ve blogged before about big firms getting stung on social media, but this is the first time I’ve spotted a contractor compelled to sign up to a social media platform because of the kicking it’s getting from social media users. I’m talking about the charity Tomorrow’s People. They found themselves in the eye of a storm following an investigation by Guardian journalist and Dragon-fairy-watcher Shiv Malik.

Mr Malik’s original article – and his follow-up with the political fallout speak for themselves. I don’t intend to repeat the allegations as he knows far more about this case than I do. What interests me is that Tomorrow’s People did not appear to have a Twitter account until the day after Twitter went into overdrive. (Their account is here – launched the day after Mr Malik’s article appeared in The Guardian). But by that time, backbench MPs and peers had already tweeted that they were going to table Parliamentary Questions. At the suggestion of others – myself included, there were further suggestions about select committee hearings.

All of this will make for uncomfortable reading for the Charity’s chief executive Conservative Peer Baronees Debbie Scott. That the chief executive of a charity can be a holder of political public office raises my eyebrows. Having a politically-partisan chairperson or trustee is the norm in the charity field, but having an executive day-to-day function is something that slightly troubles me – not least one that has a direct contractual relationship with the State in delivering government contracts. That’s not to say I’m alleging impropriety – I’m not. The Charity Commission would come down on any charity using its political contacts in that manner like a ton of bricks. That and civil service procurement officers negotiating such a contract would whistle-blow on such political interference. At least I hope they would.

Lord Prescott and ministerial correspondence conventions

Anyway, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was one of the first off the mark, writing to the Home Secretary calling for an investigation. For those not aware of the convention of Ministerial-to-Parliamentary correspondence, any letter written to a department of state by a Member of Parliament or a Peer of the Realm MUST be responded to by a Minister of the Crown. This underpins the convention of Parliament holding the Government to account. The letter that Lord Prescott gets back MUST have a ministerial signature at the bottom – i.e. the issue WILL be raised with ministers. (They will want to know why a former Deputy Prime Minister of such long standing has chosen to write to them.)

Being a former Cabinet Minister, Prescott is also a ‘privy councillor’. Appointment to the Privy Council is normally restricted to Cabinet and other senior ministers, and other senior state officials. It also carries a series of obligations around confidentiality of state information, as well as rights on seeing certain pieces of information that other MPs and the general public cannot see. (E.g. National Security issues). As Prescott is a Privy Councillor, any responses to his correspondence with departments of state MUST come from a minister ‘of equivalent rank’ – i.e. privy councillors themselves. Hence this piece of correspondence is likely to cross the Home Secretary’s desk – unless she explicitly delegates it to a minister with policy responsibility for that area. (To which the letter back will state something along the lines of “I am responding on behalf of the Home Secretary as I have policy responsibility for this issue” – i.e. “The Home Secretary has delegated decision-making to me, so it’s me you need to hold to account in the first instance.”)

“We need an urgent discussion”

…is probably going to be on the minds of those officials responsible for this policy area – along with the contract managers. Chances are there will be some discussion with the DWP – officials and ministers alike given that wider issues around the Work Programme have been raised.

Tomorrow’s People has already tweeted that something went wrong – badly – in this case. They have also said they’ll be making a statement later on – one I assume that will involve a few phone calls to the DWP and Home Office. Both ministers and officials will be wanting answers from both organisations named in that tweet. Let’s see what it says.

Was it the action that was wrong or the media handling that was wrong?

As far as Puffles’ Twitter stream was concerned, it was the former – it’s too early to tell with the latter. (Tomorrow’s People have also conceded on the former point in it’s first tweet). Social media makes it very difficult to ‘spin’ your way out of problems. Lines to take are all-too-often ridiculed in social media world, even though in the era of meagrely resourced news rooms such lines to take are more often than not taken as given and are seldom scrutinised. Social media users have shown on many occasions they are more than able to make up for this, tipping off journalists and politicians on what questions are worth asking and to whom, as well as presenting otherwise unseen evidence.

Tomorrow’s People were also hamstrung by the Jubilee extended bank holiday. Not only was this firestorm related to one of the biggest jamborees in recent years, but in some circles it was politically controversial given the expense, the wealth of the royals and the hardships that many are struggling with in these tough economic times. Combine a time when everyone is out of the office vs a social media machine that never switches off was always going to be a tough challenge.

The civil service is also on an ‘extended holiday’ given that they get an extra day off for the Queen’s birthday. Some will have taken Friday, others will be taking Wednesday. Also combine this with Parliamentary recess – which means for the two weeks there is likely to be a rota of duty ministers to allow them to go back to their constituencies OR have a holiday. (With most it’ll be a chance to catch up on constituency casework – being a minister and being an MP are more than two full-time jobs in themselves). Thus we have a media firestorm on a politically sensitive issue where many people are out of the office – and possibly on holiday out of the country with the extended bank holiday. For the civil service, how do you respond to these sorts of pressures?

It’s not all bad news for Tomorrow’s People

For a start, they acknowledged that bad stuff happened. A far cry from: “We have become aware of some issues that have been raised in the media around our activities in X,Y and Z which we are investigating urgently.”

Secondly, they’ve managed the expectations of people and the media: They’ve said they’ll be putting out a statement in the morning, and that they will be investigating this issue. I.e. it’s not being brushed under the carpet. It can’t be brushed under the carpet. Too many social media people who have a strong interest in this area have been made aware of it and will now be following it closely, even if the rest of the media move onto something else. The well-connected specialist expert can be a very tough adversary – and there are more than a few following this one.

Finally, they’ve acknowledged they have a duty to elected representatives who have constituents affected – and are dealing directly with them rather than palming them off through the Whitehall jungle – something that would inevitably come back and bite them as such behaviour would say to the relevant select committee “Summon us for a grilling!” Not that I don’t think they’ll avoid that one. For me the question is which select committee will do the grilling. Between the firms, officials and ministers they’d better decide quickly what the lines of accountability were and who is going to take responsibility because from the tweets of MPs I’ve seen, along with concern for constituents, this is one of their key concerns.

As the journalist Louise S pointed out to Puffles, did this all happen by accident, part of a normal internal process or is this professional crisis management? One of the protagonists is going head-to-head on the flagship Radio4 Today programme with John Prescott later today. It will be interesting to see what line they take. Apologise and say it won’t happen again or go on the attack?

Let’s see how this plays out.

UPDATE: 06 June 2012

Tomorrow’s People have put out a statement here. Louise was right – this is professional crisis management. If you scroll to the bottom of the statement you’ll see two contacts. One from the firm, one from a consultancy firm the Cicero Group. Given the latter’s report on the reputation of UK banking, it’s not surprising that a robust response has been forthcoming.

That’s not to say it’s “Job done”. Molly Prince of Close Protection UK – who were working in partnership with Tomorrow’s People was interviewed by Evan Davis with John Prescott on The Today Show – click here, search for 06 June 2012 and scroll to 0810. I tweeted through Puffles that her performance was absolutely woeful. One of the risks of putting senior management up for such interviews – especially if they are not comfortable with media appearances – is they end up making things look worse. This in my view is what happened here. Not that there will be a shortage of consultancies looking to offer her and firms like hers media training. I did media training in the civil service myself.

As far as Tomorrow’s People are concerned, the immediate crisis has been averted. They’ve acknowledged the problem, managed the expectations of what’s going to happen and when, and have offered to meet directly with the politicians whose constituents were affected. They have also passed much of the blame onto Close Protection UK – though it remains to be seen whether there were any shortcomings on Tomorrow’s People’s side on how relations between the two organisations and the DWP were managed. This is the sort of stuff that normally comes out in select committee hearings – assuming you’ve got some forensic-style MPs on the select committees concerned. Was there anything in the systems and processes within the working relationships that needlessly put the health and safety of individuals at risk?

It’s also interesting to note that Downing Street has taken a different approach – seeing this as an isolated incident over which the company concerned has apologised.

Again, let’s see what happens when Parliament returns.

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4 Responses to If your firm’s not on Twitter and you end up in a social media firestorm…

  1. John Connett says:

    I’m amazed that there is so little emphasis on the public safety issues behind this! A huge public event with crowd security paid from the public purse to protect mostly “hard working tax payers”. The safety of these crowds was left to tired, unfed, cross-legged people with limited training and experience. Was the contract for experienced staff and priced accordingly? Fortunately, the event passed safely and will not join the list of crowd-related disasters like Hillborough, Hysel, Ibrox and Kings Cross. What I would like to know was who would have been considered responsible if such a disaster had occurred?

  2. Pingback: Workfare and the Big Society | Edinburgh Eye

  3. paul says:

    Why was Tomorrow’s People giving work to an insolvent company, with a director who has already seen 5 companies of hers go to the wall through non-submission of accounts?

  4. Here’s a direct link to the specific piece on Today 06-Jun-2012 0810h:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9726000/9726250.stm

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