What constitutes a PR disaster? My perspective on Argyll and Bute

It took just 24 hours for Twitter to catch alight, the ban to be reversed and a proliferation of ‘bad PR’ posts to spring up – most of them packed with good advice, and worth reading, mind. But I can’t help thinking that when we all leap on the latest outrage, we’ve sometimes lost sight of the actual extent of people power through social media. It is tremendously impressive at times, but sometimes, I think, we congratulate ourselves too warmly and too soon.

Is anyone still boycotting Poundland for its allegedly anti-poppy stance? Nestle already had plenty of PR issues – was anyone permanently convinced by the KitKat logo page hijack? Is Habitat finding it impossible to recruit interns and suffering as a result? Or, to put it bluntly: is anyone’s bottom line permanently affected by a social media storm?

That’s a serious question. I’d love to see case studies where people power has permanently changed things long term for a business (aside from the News of the World – the backing of legal wrangling tends to help make your point). I suspect that there are some cases, but also that the biggest, brashest, brightest storms more or less died without a trace, remembered and dredged up mainly by social media pros – like me, in fact.

I wince when I see slow, reactionary and arrogant reputation management because, well, it’s slow, reactionary and arrogant. I think you should fix things – and not act stupidly in the first place, as the council clearly did – because they should be fixed, not solely for economic reasons (although for any business or charity, that is a good reason). But in the end, it would have made no difference to the coffers or workings of Argyll and Bute council if they’d just done nothing and stuck to their daft line. Because they’re a council. Are people going to refuse to pay their council tax? Not buy or rent a house there? Withdraw their kids from Martha’s school? Of course not.

What does worry me is that there might have been a human cost, both for Martha and for people being harangued or treated badly either by fellow council staff or members of the public trying to show their support; I do think this should be a major consideration, because I can’t think what’s more important than people. But, again, it wouldn’t have lasted long.

And, of course, many have shown their marvellously subversive human nature by raising £2,000 while the blog was allowed and active and, at last count, nearly£50,000 in protest. Which is definitely good news for Mary’s Meals.

My point is this: of course spokespeople, PRs and community managers should be responsive, intelligent and, above all, possess some compassion and consideration when dealing with outcries and complaints. They should not get heavy with the ban hammer, or rush out poorly-considered statements. But I also don’t think we should get carried away with declaring crises, disasters or catastrophes. 

I like to think I do my job well, because I consider each and every individual whose issue is sorted out or who feels closer to us as a result of interaction online important – I genuinely care. But I also do my job well because I understand that there’s a bigger picture. Argyll and Bute can’t shrug and say “oh well, we did our best”, because they didn’t, but they can say “oh well”. Now, that’s an important difference (you should always do your best) but it’s not going to have a tremendously different outcome in this case. The great skill of the community manager, one that we all have to work at improving every day, is understanding when to adjust the lens. Argyll and Bute did it embarrassingly late, but their critics didn’t really do it at all.

The other issue is, of course, social media’s role in turning slacktivism (which I think it unfairly denigrated, at least for its short-term effects) into longer term activism. If this has inspired just one person to tackle poor provision at their own council then that’s great.

In the end, the learnings from this, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty much the same as they have been from every other case study of its type:

  • Don’t be stupid
  • When you stop being stupid, everyone will forget about it, and you can get on with things
  • Again, don’t be stupid

Or, I guess, summed up in one more positive assertion: be human, with all that entails.


  1. Well said. It’s important to learn from this stuff but more important not to lose perspective of what it really means in the long term.


    1. Thanks Serena. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade and think Martha should be proud. Just need to reclaim a bit of context!


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