A week on from the BBC going toe-to-toe with its highest-paid star over a tweet, Gary Lineker and his panel are returning to their Match of the Day table this weekend. While the BBC hopes that its own-goal fades into the background, the experience has raised significant questions: can companies control their people’s personal social media content? If not, how can they navigate situations to avoid a similar kick-off?

Like many of us, our Director of People and Strategy, Hattie, watched it all play-out minute-by-minute and here are the learnings she thinks we can all take from it…

It will come as a surprise to no-one that I am probably the furthest from a football fan you can find at EV. However, as a Leicester-native, a Twitter-spectator, and an avid lover of crisps, I am both familiar with and a fan of Gary Lineker. That’s why when the BBC took him on last weekend, I simply could not look away.

So, how – and why – did we get here?

Often heralded as one of the nation’s sweethearts, Gary rarely seems to put a foot wrong in the eyes of the public… However, despite having worked for the BBC for many years, he hasn’t always played by their rules. In 2021, he was asked by the broadcaster to stop tweeting about political issues, as it was seen as potentially damaging to the corporation’s impartiality. He responded by stating that he would continue to use his personal Twitter account as he saw fit.

The two brushed this off until the final straw last week when Gary tweeted about the government’s refugee policy, stating that it used “language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s”. The BBC removed Gary from its planned programming until they could reach a resolution. However, following the decision, his fellow commentators stood down one-by-one in solidarity and every timeline in the land flooded with hot-takes.

The topic was all anyone could talk about – including most of my friends who couldn’t explain the off-side rule if you paid them – sparking several important debates, including the question: “can and should your employer dictate how you use your personal social media account?”

Of course, today you’d be hard pushed to find an employee with no personal social media accounts. Whereas a decade ago, those who had them mainly used them to put up grainy pictures of their dinners and dogs. Social media platforms have now become a popular way for people to express their views and opinions, showcase their interests, and connect with others.

This has created tension in some workplaces, as employers grow concerned about the potential impact that an employee’s personal social media activity could have on the company’s reputation.

This situation raises several important questions about the relationship between employees and their personal social media accounts. On the one hand, employees have the right to express themselves on their personal social media platforms. On the other hand, as representatives of their companies, the potential impact their words and actions can have on their employers is greater than ever before.

While employers can establish clear policies regarding the use of personal social media accounts by employees – outlining acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and providing guidelines and best practice on how to use social media in a professional manner – this is hard to enforce and, as we’ve seen in this case, a difficult and damaging hill to die on.

Instead, the answer for us at EV. stems from having honest internal conversations.

We know that at EV., our people truly are our power: they are the brains behind every campaign; the problem-solvers for our clients’ crises; the beating heart of EAST VILLAGE., and the reason we all enjoy turning up each morning. Of course, as PR people, we also know the value of personal brand and actively encourage everyone to share their professional successes on their feeds.

With this empowerment and platforming of our people, we also appreciate that we are all individuals that will (and should!) have differences of opinion. However, rather than trying to quieten or hide this, we celebrate it.

To do this, we not only consciously create space to have those discussions and learn from each other’s perspectives, both on our Slack channels and IRL; but we also ensure that even when we don’t agree, everyone knows that we’re all playing for the same team.

Our conversations around even the most difficult topics are always fair and respectful (if quite passionate!) and exploring our diversity of thought is invaluable when it comes to ensuring that we can create campaigns for our clients that speak to different groups of people.

This appreciation-piece is embedded in every part of the business: from our values (which are proudly displayed on our office wall) asserting that “if we don’t believe it, we don’t sell it”; through to our TeamEV Charter, which encourages us to ‘call each other in’ when we want to challenge something we don’t agree with.

This mutual respect means that each person feels empowered to speak on matters that matter to them, while also being conscious of the impact that these expressions may have on the reputation of the EV. brand, and therefore in turn, their teammates.

I know that EV. isn’t quite the beast that the BBC is: however, I think the Lineker versus BBC debacle should have got us all thinking about the role our personal social media platforms can play.

My three key takes are that employers and employees should:

  • Work together to find their common goals – being on the same page about everything simply isn’t going to happen but being united on the things that matter most to each of you will make for a much smoother ride. Making your vision, mission, and values clear (and ensuring they are actually reflective your company’s ethos) will take the guesswork out of things for both sides.
  • Build a framework that both allows for the expression of personal views, while also creating space for honest two-way conversations about the impact of this in the bigger picture – when you do differ, have the process in place to have the conversation in a way that allows both sides to be heard and bring their thoughts to the table, rather than a public tug-of-war. Had the BBC not played it out on the mainstage, the likelihood is the tweet would have been yesterday’s news much quicker.
  • Set guidelines that mean that no-one’s left guessing what’s right or wrong – people only know what they know so expecting people to play by unwritten rules is a risky game. Take the risk out of it and make it clear what your policy is and – even more importantly – where to go to discuss it. Having a process for how to challenge is likely to encourage an honest conversation first, rather than crisis comms after.

By doing this, I truly believe both parties can benefit from the opportunities presented by social media while minimising the risks. Play on.

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