This post is really a note to self and shared to gather input and feedback, partly because I fear the limitations of 140 on twitter may misrepresent me, and partly because I usually find that blogging something helps straighten my thoughts. I’m speaking at National Care Forum’s annual conference #NCF2014 this week and my session is titled ‘Can social media improve service quality’ – so these thoughts are partly related to that too. In this post I’m interested in the potential impact of social media on leadership, and those who are leaders, and I’m particularly interested at the moment in how it’s used (or not) at times of crisis management or reputational risk.
Social media is not new any more. Some would argue it has never been new, and that social has been around since biblical times, it’s just the forms of media that have changed. Certainly there is a strong history of narrative, story telling and social connectivity in most leadership lessons, and indeed throughout history. So what difference does social media make?
The ladder above is the work of Sherry Arnstein. It’s not perfect but I find it a useful starting point for considering the role and impact of social media. I first blogged on this 18 months ago, and I’m not going to replicate that post here because you can read the whole thing Social Media and Citizen Engagement, but I believe that social media is a really useful lens for identifying how leaders are using information and power!
I think one of the best things about social media is that it has the potential to disrupt, and turn on it’s head, normal patterns of behaviour. I’m not always saying that is a good thing, in fact one of the few posts I’ve written about leadership looked at Troublemakers or Changemakers? and I am personally very aware of the potential to disrupt, but the need to do that in a productive way.
I think the challenge, and opportunity, for leadership is exactly that. We have tools and platforms at our disposal that can genuinely disrupt what leadership looks like, we can access hundreds of our customers and staff and genuinely empower them to contribute and collaborate with us. We can share, and collect, information and data in real time. Increasingly it’s seen as normal practice for Board Meetings to be broadcast live on the internet, Care Quality Commission have one on Wednesday (21 May) if you’d like to see how that works.
Gone are the days of information being collected in the board room, carefully filtered and dressed for public consumption, before signatories were collected and press releases were signed off and issued. Gone are the days where you could manipulate the timing of your press release to manage minimal coverage, by releasing it so late you’d hope to miss the evening news. That said it would appear that many leaders are not yet realising this, or changing their organisations to take account of it.
I’ll share two very recent examples, briefly, both of which I believe have something to offer this discussion.
The first is Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust‘s handling (I can’t think of a better word) of the communications around the independent report into Connor Sparrowhawk’s preventable death. I’m not going to discuss JusticeforLB in great detail here, there is a blog post that touches on it from the early days Justice for LB: A movement for change, an independent overview of the 107 days campaign written by Guardian journalist Saba Salman on Day 47: Indignation and initiative versus institutional inertia and Sara’s half way blog post Day 53: The golden M(iddle) if you’d like to know more.
Southern Health chose to not release the independent report into Connor’s death until early evening. They offered little communications publicly during the day, nothing proactively until a number of calls were made to their press office once nothing had been shared by 10am. Then a tweet was shared that said they were waiting for permission to publish the report…and eventually many hours later, after 6pm if memory serves me correctly, the report was published.
This post isn’t a place for a discussion of Southern Health’s performance in any greater detail, or indeed of the JusticeforLB campaign and how we have responded. Although I would draw your attention to a post by Victoria Betton if you’re interested, exploring some of the allegations made about trolling, When is a troll not a troll and who decides? It would appear that those who chose to share their anger at Southern Health’s ‘performance’ were branded as trolls by them – you can click on the image above and see how people responded, doesn’t look like trolling to me. I’ll come back to this below.
Fast forward to today and my attention was drawn to another tweet about abuse of people with learning disabilities, children this time. This abuse happened at a residential school run by MacIntyre in Mid Wales. It was reported by the BBC on Friday. MacIntyre have a press release on their website, that was added on Saturday. Nothing had been mentioned by them, or Bill Mumford, on their twitter streams in response to this story.
Now, in the spirit of fairness and balance, within the hour Bill did come online and make public commitments to improving things and share his reaction. That has to be acknowledged, but why wasn’t there more public ownership? If you issue a press release, why not share proudly how you’ve responded? Proactive, early leadership, not head down, weekend press releases and hope no-one notices (my assessment, not theirs). Why wait for others to identify and make the connection to your Chief Exec’s additional role. As I said on twitter this morning, I’ve heard lots of good things about Bill and MacIntyre’s provision, and I’m a realist I don’t believe that we’ll ever fully stop abuse from happening, but that is why leadership once this happens is so crucial.
By way of explanation Bill had this to say about why no explicit connection had been made between this story, him, and his role as head of Winterbourne JIP, the national improvement partnership established post-Panorama in 2011 to stop this happening.
Bill hasn’t been in post a year yet, having replaced the previous leadership, but with the Minister recently describing the programme as an ‘abject failure’ I can understand why they’d want to dodge bad publicity. That said you have to ask how effective that body is if a statement can’t be approved in the time it took MacIntyre to make the decision to close down a school; it may have only hit the news on Friday but concerns were raised two months ago.
Life has moved on. Might I suggest that whoever is giving PR or communications advice to these organisations is wildly out of date. There is nowhere to hide, you’re fighting a losing battle if you think you can control communications in the traditional sense. Perhaps more soul destroyingly you’re missing opportunities to do it differently. To be brave and authentic leaders, to make a stance in the face of mistakes, to embody and role model a brighter alternative. Social media shines a light on these murky behaviours, but it also provides potential to do things differently. People who are challenging you are not trolls, they are potential collaborators.
I don’t sit typing this as an apathetic critical finger-pointer, I’m someone who has put my money where my mouth is. With the 107days campaign I am doing what I can to support change, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to stay silent and watch those who are paid to lead miss opportunities. For the record, I don’t think the solution is more meetings to discuss how things could be done differently, I’m talking about leaders (all of us) taking a long hard look at ourselves and moving away from social media as a space to have tweet chats and feel we’ve done something (I consider myself as guilty as anyone at doing this), and move more towards using social media platforms to really lead differently.
As ever I’d really welcome your thoughts on this post, these really are just half formed observations on my behalf.
When this post was shared on twitter one of the first to comment was Andrea Sutcliffe, who said this:
Since then it has been variously shared and discussed in relation to leadership, and bureaucracies, and a combination of both. I didn’t think it was accurate to go back and change the title of the post but wanted to add this angle in to gather any thoughts on that too. Thank you.
If you’re reading this thinking your organisation would like to discuss and learn more about how to do this differently, you could always pledge for a £1000 reward on my headshave crowdfunding challenge, and you’ll get Sara Ryan and me in person, at your disposal for half a day to discuss just that (cheeky self promotion, I’m aware that I’m hanging around the bottom rungs of the ladder with that one!)