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.