Social media is a powerful tool, but in the wrong hands can end up as a disaster. This is something that Argyll and Bute Council is swiftly learning to their cost. A young lady in primary school, going by the online name of 'Veg' decided to blog her school dinners, and to include photographs of them. It's a chatty, fun and amusing blog, and links to a charity site and has raised almost £10,000 for a charity. However, Argyll and Bute Council are unhappy about it. They have informed her and her father that she is not allowed to photograph the meals that she is served to put onto the blog. Their justification is at Statement on school meals from Argyll and Bute Council | Argyll and Bute Council. It is full of completely overblown hyperbole and would be funny if it wasn't so sad. The final line reads "The council’s focus is now on supporting the school in the education of young people in Argyll and Bute." The logical conclusion of this is that presumably it wasn't focussing on the education of young people previously.
As a result of their total mismanagement of this situation we have learned several interesting things about the Council. Firstly, they are scared by the actions of a single primary school pupil. Despite their apparent confidence in the quality of their school meals, they are not allowing Veg to photograph them and share them with the rest of us. One has to wonder why this is the case, if they are as excellent as they make out. Secondly, rather than acting in an adult way, their immediate response is to try and block and ban her. This is not the actions of people who are in control and understand a situation. It makes them look like bullies - which is actually a much MORE interesting story in its own right. Thirdly, it shows that they have absolutely no idea about the power of social media, since this story is now going viral. There's an interesting BBC news story for example. There are thousands of tweets about this and the Council is getting bombarded with emails and complaints. (If you'd like to add your own complaints, here's a link. I encourage you to use it, since every complaint will spell out to them how important they need to be in taking into account the views of everyone in their constituency.) You can also sign a petition to get them to lift their ban as well, if you feel so inclined. They've also had the kiss of death in a tweet from Neil Gaiman: "@neilhimself: Dear @argyllandbute. It's sad to watch you turn something good into a PR disaster for, er Argyll. & Bute."
So, what should the Council have done? Well, they should have taken the blog seriously to begin with, and addressed her concerns. They should have given her something positive to blog about, and perhaps taken her through the process of creating school meals, giving her a chance to photograph a variety of them. They could have asked her to include links to their statement on healthy meals. They could have produced a positive puff piece on their website about how healthy their meals are. They could even have asked a TV chef to come in and look them over. They could have used the publicity in a positive way and had some fun with it - getting pupils or the general public to suggest new meals, created a game on how to create something on a limited budget in order to get US to understand the pressures on them to produce good food at minimum cost. They could have done a video interview with school chefs, shown the children eating at lunch time perhaps, interviewed parents who are happy with the school meals, got the children to use the concept of school meals in their lessons.
They could have acted proactively and positively, rather than negatively. As a result of their foolish actions this has become not only a national issue, it's global in reach and will be referred to in social media lessons, training sessions and books. If only they'd employed a social media officer. If only their existing staff understood social media. If only they understood the power of the media. If only they had respected the voice of a young child. If only...