Jo Smith has taken a massive step towards clearing her name and accepted an out-of-court compensation payment from Argyll & Bute Council rather than press ahead with her claim for unfair dismissal. You can read all about it in the Dunoon Observer.
Okay, isn’t this just a backwater story? Actually, no. If you work in local government, are a comms person or speak or have ever learned something at a conference this all is pretty significant. Had Jo lost there may have been a chilling effect on all three.
It’s an attractive story on the face of it. Council spin doctor accused by an anonymous source in the Glasgow Herald of saying at a conference she’s been spying using social media. Uproar at conference. Politicians get angry. She gets sacked.
Only thing was it was not true. There was no uproar at the conference. The story emerged four months after it took place. The comments some people attributed to her at the event were not made. People at the conference confirmed this. There were no spy accounts despite a thorough and expensive internal investigation. Jo even topped the feedback as being the most popular speaker with attendees. Some uproar.
Disclaimer: I was at the uproar-less conference and confirmed this less exciting version of events to the Glasgow Herald journalist who first wrote the non-story and failed to quote me. Or organiser Nick Hill. As a former journalist that’s, how shall we say, somewhat disappointing. I also contributed to the internal inquiry along with others who were at or spoke at the event.
You may have heard of Argyll & Bute Council before. They gave the world a world case study in how not to do social media. You may recall they picked a fight with an eight-year-old who was blogging on the Never Seconds blog about her school meals. Jamie Oliver and others came in on the child’s side and they were forced to climb-down. You just know you are on a loser when even a sock puppet makes up a song about you…
You can read BBC technology correspondant Rory Celland-Jones’s take on the Argyll & Bute Never Seconds debacle here.
By the looks of things there are enough people in Argyll & Bute asking questions that now need asking and I think that’s best left to people there.
Jo hasn’t commented on the matter but as organiser Nick Hill this week told Scottish media:
““I organised the conference where the allegations stemmed from and I told both the newspaper involved and the council’s investigation at the outset that Jo didn’t say any of the things she was accused of.
“This has been an extremely trying time for Jo, and I know she wants to thank everyone who has supported her: family, friends, the National Union of Journalists, colleagues and fellow communications professionals. This episode would have been much more difficult to weather without their efforts.
“I know Jo wishes Argyll and Bute Council all the success it deserves.”
Here are seven thoughts…
1. Would the Never Seconds blog debacle have happened with Jo Smith in her post? It was clear that there was no handle on how to respond to bloggers. Or how to respond when things started to go wrong. A Twitter account that was silent but being bombarded with angry tweets is a case study in how not to. It shows the value in having a digital communications-savvy comms person on the bridge.
2. This shows why it’s a good idea to be in a union. The National Union of Journalism stepped in to offer advice and legal representation. Not everyone knows it covers PR people too. I’m in it because you just never know when you’ll be in a situation that Jo found herself in.
3. Jo Smith is made out of stronger stuff than you or me. Weaker people could have gone under. Heaven knows there must have been some dark times but she battled through and can now hold her head up again.
4. It begs the question of what Jo now does about a sometimes digital foot print. In which some pretty vile stuff remains. She’d be entirely forgiven for taking a long hard think about that with her legal team.
5. There could have been a chilling effect on the sharing of knowledge across local government comms had Jo have lost. Many would have re-thought the benefits of speaking at conferences or even attending when the penalty for mis-quoting is the sack and potential career ruin.
6. Jo is an excellent and engaging writer. We were fortunate enough to take a guest post from her on comms2point0 last year based on her experience as a London 2012 games maker. You can read it here.
7. She now deserves to make a success of her life as she puts her experience behind her. With the determination she’s shown she will. Vindicat PR is her new venture and I hope she’ll continue as a contributor to comms2point0.
Roman Emporer Julius Frontius made this bold comment in the 1st century. And he didn’t even have Google Plus to contend with. Bet he feels a bit silly now.
Tempting as it is to apply it to today you’d be similarly way off the money. Robot butlers and jet packs may top my own wish list but in practical terms what is likely to change?
If 2011 was a year of rapid change in local government then 2012 may see more of the same. Most of it is just a continuation of themes that started in the previous 12 months.
Here are 12 predictions for the year ahead from my perspective as a local government comms person. (Disclaimer: much of this probably won’t ever happen).
1. Comms will have a fight for control of social media. They’ll lose in the long term if they want to keep it all for themselves. They’ll win if the create an environment for others to innovate.
2. Data visualisation will boom. With the web prompting comms people to search for new platforms to tell a story data visualisation will expand. With free tools being available there will be innovation.
3. JFDI dies. As the mainstreaming of digital continues JFDI – or Just Flipping Do It – as a way of getting things done in an organisation will end. You can’t fly under the radar on Facebook if 29 million people in the UK are on it.
5. Someone will do summat reely stoopid and it won’t matter. In 2008, a rogue tweet could have closed down a council’s social media output. As it gets more embedded it’ll be more bullet proof.
6. Emergency planners will use Twitter as second nature. There’ll be more big incidents played out on social media. But best practice will be shared.
7. The local government social media star of 2012 will be someone doing a routine task in a place you’ve never visited. Step forward the local government worker who talks about his day job. There will be more like @orkneylibrary and @ehodavid.
8. Linked social will grow. Linked social is different voices on different platforms growing across an organisation or across the public sector. It will be especially interesting to see how this develops in Scotland and the West Midlands.
9. Good conferences will have an unconference element. Or they’ll actually be unconferences. Some people don’t get unconferences. But they generally want to leave on the stroke of five o’clock and don’t do anything outside their JD. Bright ones do but will be happier if they’re wrapped up and presented like a ‘proper’ conference. But unconferences will be more diverse and targeted.
10. Newspapers will carry on dying. Bright comms people will carry on developing web 2.0 skills and use them in tandem with old media. Good Journalism will carry on adapting to the web. But this may take time to filter through to local newspapers who have been the bread and butter of local government press offices.
11. Data journalism will grow. But not in local newspapers. Bloggers will uncover big stories that a print journalist doing the work of three doesn’t have time to look for.
12. Amazing things will happen in Scotland. Some of the brightest people in the public sector who are innocavating aren’t in London. They’re north of the border serving as police officers as well as in local government. It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops.
Creative commons credits
Computer for the space shuttle programme http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/6521818485/sizes/l/in/photostream/