What a football club can teach the Foreign Office about social media

It’s not often that Joey Barton crops up in international diplomacy. For those who don’t know him, he’s a premiership footballer, currently with Newcastle United (though not for much longer). Talented, but bogged down with ‘anger management issues’, he’s in dispute with his employers for tweeting about internal issues. Transfer-listed and made to train on his own, he’s becoming an increasingly esoteric figure (his profile picture is Che Guevara) , tweeting quotes from all the great philosophers – from Nietzsche to Morrisey.
Meanwhile, Newcastle looks to be banning all its players from Twitter.
So what’s that to do with the Foreign Office? We have a list of social media spaces in which senior figures explain and discuss policy and implementation. Nothing could be further from the Twitter renegade Barton, surely?
The issue is raises is about those on social media who aren’t on the official lists – users who are on Twitter, perhaps, for their own reasons, nothing to do with work. When it’s obvious that they work for a government department (or football club), and the comments they make reflect on their employer, what stance do we adopt? It’s not a significant issue yet (though that may be tempting fate), and much is covered in the Civil Service Code, but we’ve been thinking a lot about the advice we give about the use of social media by ‘ordinary’ civil servants and the atmosphere we create around it.
An unlikely, but very useful, contribution, has come from Newcastle’s neighbours and rivals Sunderland who have taken a rather different approach. It might be a treading on football’s rivalries to say that Sunderland seem more enlightened than Newcastle, but they seem to be embracing the possibilities of social media rather more enthusiastically.
Sunderland encourage their players to engage with the public (confession: I’m basing this on a single newspaper Times article claiming to have seen their social media guidance, but it struck a chord). They seem to want to strike a balance between the fact that ‘social media is a great way to keep in touch with the fans’ and caution. Their main guidelines are worth repeating here, with some strong hints as to how I’ll be wrestling this stuff into the next version of our own social media guidelines:
‘Anything we say online – whether good, bad or indifferent – reflects on the club and impacts on its reputation.’
The same is true for any organisation. The biggest single threat is often reputational damage. This is emphasised in the Civil Service Code, but the fact that the internet never forgets is worth remembering.
Unless you have been authorised by the club’s media and communications team, you are kindly asked not to comment on any team news or injuries.
For us, therefore, information about ministerial visits which might have security implications, comments on policies not yet announced or anything which translate still-private meeting and conversations into the public arena could be a problem.
The internet is a public space. If you wouldn’t say it to the manager, a director, a fan or a journalist, it’s best just not to tweet it.
This is another way of saying that Twitter and the like are effectively public speaking. We don’t have to make up new rules about what is and isn’t acceptable. The old ones still apply.
Sunderland has a history as an economically deprived area. It is worth bearing this in mind when discussing spending habits.
Diplomats are not on Premiership wages, but when we’re on social media right across the globe, local cultural sensitivities are important to remember. Understanding your audience and how things will be received is, again, part of the old rules of diplomacy. They need to be applied in new places.
All of the above seems sensible, and we’ll see how it plays out with a group of talented and privileged young men, far harder to tame, I suspect, than civil servants. The points they made will have an echo in our own, constantly evolving, guidelines. We’ll be taking the Sunderland position rather than Newcastle’s, but then again, we don’t have a Joey Barton in our midst.
Twitter: @JimmyTLeach

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Jeff Ribeira

Great list, Jimmy. I really like the first and last ones. I think particularly with government work, employees are to be representatives both on and off the field (to go along with your analogy), perhaps even more so than in the private sector. I also really like your comment at the end about how social media guidelines are “constantly evolving.” I think one of the most critical characteristics for any organization (private or gov.) is adaptability, and the ability to implement change effectively, especially in the realm of social media and tech!

Jimmy Leach

I think this is where the evolution in our thinking currently is – in that gap between people who’s role it is to communicate – who tend to have official, signed-off channels – and those who do it for their own fun but who’s updates impact upon their employers. While both our governments campaign for access to the internet as a right, we can hardly ban them from doing so, but we can give better guidance.

Joe Flood

Common-sense rules like these are perfect. They’re also more likely to be followed because they treat people like adults. Now, if you could only explain the offside rule…

Jimmy Leach

Thanks Stephen. And Joe – it’s quite simple: if the player is level or behind a player at the moment the ball is released ….