#neverseconds: The valuable lesson many bloggers can learn from a nine-year-old

I’m sure there have been a thousand posts written about what we can learn from the story of nine-year-old Martha Payne, the little girl who was temporarily banned from posting pictures of her school dinner on a blog because the resulting press coverage had distressed dinner ladies.

In fact, according to Google Blogsearch, some 43,400 blogs make reference to NeverSeconds, the blog Martha started as part of a project to improve her English by writing in a journalistic way.

I’m not going to talk about the PR side of it (What’s The Pont nails this one, as does Waves PR while The Wall Blog seems to miss the boat a bit with a bit of a lazy suggestion that it’s another example of local government not getting social media), or give out advice to Martha (Geekosystem’s pay-off line is the best piece of advice I’ve seen), or look at how badly the council in question made a hash(tag) of the situation (Stuart Bruce covers that here).

Instead, I think there’s a very valuable lesson many bloggers – and those who spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter – could learn from Martha.

It’s this: There’s no point complaining about stuff online if you’re not prepared to complain directly.

Here’s how I reached that conclusion: When I first heard about the whole sorry saga about Martha’s blog, I listened to Argyll and Bute Council’s defence on Victoria Derbyshire’s show on BBC Radio Five Live. Cleland Sneddon, in charge of school meals (and a lot more) at the council repeatedly told the show that the council hadn’t received any complaints about the school meals service, so felt the criticism levelled against dinner ladies as the media picked up on Martha’s blog was unfair.

He said that there had been ‘no complaints  across 78 schools for 2 years’ before suggesting some of the posts were ‘highly critical.’ When challenged on why the posts were critical, he returned to his point that there had been no complaints.

At this point, I felt a little sympathy with the council. If, as was being suggested, Martha’s blog had come along and made critical comments (and positive comments, it must be pointed out) about school meals and her parents had felt compelled to complain about what were some, quite frankly shocking, meals, then the council would arguably have a right to feel aggrieved.

It’s a situation which has been common for a long time. When local government reporter at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, the first question I’d ask someone ringing in to complain about their bins/school/library/gritted roads was ‘Have you called the council?’ Why? Because any story which included a council quote which began ‘This is the first we’ve heard about this’ is instantly weaker – if something is worth complaining to the paper about, surely it’s worth complaining about to the people who can fix the problem first.

Social media and blogging has made it easier than ever before for people to make a complaint very public, very quickly – and that can be a good thing. But it can also have the effect of making a problem worse – leaving the person/organisation which could solve the problem less inclined to do so because they’ve been subjected to a very public complaints service. The best example of this was on Channel 4′s Attack of the Trip Advisors which documented people who filed their complaints about a hotel on Trip Advisor, while staying in the hotel, but never thought to ring reception.

But back to Martha’s blog. Cleland Sneddon’s comments contradicted a council statement which said:

The council has had no complaints for the last two years about the quality of school meals other than one from the Payne family received on 6 June and there have been no changes to the service on offer since the introduction of the blog.

That changes things somewhat, doesn’t it? The council confirms it had received a complaint but had decided not to act on it. In the meantime, Martha had carried on blogging, documenting every lunch that she had and – perhaps most embarrassingly for the council – posting pictures of school lunches she’d been sent from elsewhere in the world which showed the lunches in Argyll to be, well, poor relations.

Clearly, Martha’s blog was never intended to be a campaign to get school meals improved. It was, and is, a nine-year-old writing project. But the fact her parents did complain about the food only serves to display the council in an even worse light. They’d had chance to improve things, but chose not too (and seemed proud of that fact). That makes their subsequent actions all the more outrageous.
In short, with power comes responsibility – and here we have an example of a nine year old who gets that … and that’s something many others could learn from. If a complaint is worth airing, surely it’s worth airing to the person who can make a difference directly? 
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4 comments

  1. David,
    I think some context is being missed. A&B was regarded as having a rather secretive, defensive culture in the run up to the May 2012 elections. Its head of communications was suspended in February over the alleged use of ‘spying’ accounts to monitor Facebook & Twitter. Two press officers were suspended, then resigned in April, over the exchange of ‘light-hearted messages’ on A&B’s intranet. Local bloggers report other issues like communications office pressure to remove a local radio presenter who was critical of A&B.

    In short, A&B may have been left with no senior comms officers (or at least no experienced ones) so I guess the now notorious deleted press release was thrown together by such senior managers as were available, regardless of PR experience. It certainly reads that way.

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