What Margaret Thatcher's death teaches us about social media

The death of Margaret Thatcher has brought out the best, the worst, and the silliest in the British media.

Polly Cziok: We must not forget that Twitter is a public sphere
Polly Cziok: We must not forget that Twitter is a public sphere

There have been acres of brilliant, thoughtful coverage, commentary, and reflection from both the Left and the Right. 

For those of us of a certain vintage, the past week has provided something of a nostalgia trip, with hours of fabulous Eighties archive across all news channels.

The slightly bizarre beatification of the former Prime Minister by the Daily Mail (full front page image with halo of light) surpassed even my cynical expectations, and The Sun’s front page headline ‘Munchkin Fury Over Maggie Ding Dong Song’ will surely go down as a classic in tabloid history.  

Alongside all this, one related story that made an impression on me this week was that of hapless Metropolitan Police sergeant Jeremy Scott who was forced to resign from his job, after tweeting that he hoped Mrs Thatcher died a ‘painful and degrading’ death.

Aside from the obviously horrible and offensive nature of his comments, I was struck by the sheer stupidity of a police officer posting something so inflammatory in an open public forum.   

Anyone who has ever worked with the police will know how thoroughly they are drilled in political neutrality, and how closely they guard that neutrality. 

It is unthinkable that an officer in the Met would not have been aware of the strict protocols that, quite rightly, come with the job.

Despite those rules, according to news reports, Scott’s case is one of nearly 40 substantiated claims against Met officers for misuse of social media.

Many people regard social media as private space associated with their personal lives and, if you get your privacy settings right, Facebook can be just that.

But Twitter, no matter how strident one’s ‘all views are my own’ disclaimer, is a public sphere.

Woe betide the public servant who forgets that, especially as for many journalists in our increasingly desk-bound media, Twitter is fast becoming the first port of call for story leads.

Many large organisations in the public and private sectors still block access to social media sites from their staff, unless they are considered to have a specific business need to access them. 

I strongly advocate the principle of taking down the firewalls and opening up access to social media for all staff.  

Not only does it potentially give them access to great professional networks, it encourages them to follow the news in their sectors, keep on top of developments in professional practice, and engage with debate. 

More importantly, in terms of morale, it shows staff that they are trusted to get on with their jobs, and that, as employers, we don’t feel the need to lock the toys away during work hours.

However, if we are prepared to open up access, it is our job as guardians of corporate reputation to remind staff in the strongest possible terms of the potential consequences of ill-judged or offensive comments.

It is clearly not enough to claim that one was tweeting in a ‘personal capacity’. Staff must be briefed that they should not say anything on Twitter that they would not be happy to have personally attributed to them in the Daily Mail or the local newspaper. 

As PR professionals, we have to use our judgement every day when talking to journalists about what we should and shouldn’t say, about when we can trust someone with ‘off the record’, about when we can share a personal opinion, alongside the corporate line. 

That judgement comes with years of experience, and even the most experienced among us get it wrong sometimes. 

In the social media world, whether or not we allow access to staff during work hours, we have to be aware that ‘talking to the press’ is no longer the sole preserve of the media relations team. 

Every one of our staff has the ability to put their opinions into the public domain, and it is up to us to make sure that they understand the responsibilities and the risks that come with that.

Polly Cziok is head of comms and consultation at Hackney Council

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