Citizen journalism in action, or not?

Today’s Guardian diary leads with a piece about me Twittering an indiscrete conversation I overheard on the train. It appeared to be an executive from French energy company Total talking about how Total could beat the unions at the Lindsey oil refinery.

In one respect it’s a great example of citizen journalists. Companies have to behave more responsibly because there are so many extra ‘citizen journalists’ watching what they do and ready to expose malpractice.

In reality the reason two national newspaper journalists called me for more information and the Guardian ran it as a diary story is probably because of the number of ministers, MPs, journalists and other PR people who follow me. The papers and unions would still have found out about this without social media. I’d have simply have phoned them to tip them off (waiting until I was somewhere more discrete!)

It would always have been a stupid thing to do to have such a conversation in a public environment like a train carriage (particularly in one that was almost empty and quiet). What social media means is that number of potential witnesses are far more and it is far easier for them to spread the word.

I’ve worked on issues management for client companies who are in the midst of industrial disputes, plant closures and redundancies. As a lifelong Labour Party and trade union member (Unite) I’ve found this isn’t as difficult as you would suspect and it is usually never at conflict with my beliefs. Closures and redundancies are often a necessary evil, but it’s up to the company doing it to decide if they want to do it in a moral and responsible way or an immoral and deceitful way. When I’m providing public relations consultancy it’s to help them do it right and to help ensure that corporate social responsibility is about the way they behave and not simply a publicity stunt.

Jaw jaw is always better than war war. A lesson that the management at Total would do well to learn. Total appears to have managed its relationship with employees, the unions and the media disastrously. It comes across as an arrogant, foreign owned company attacking and undermining the rights of British workers. I suspect Total isn’t as bad as it appears to be, but it’s doing a terrible job of explaining its case and indiscrete, (and one would therefore assume badly trained) executives like the two I heard don’t do anything to help its case.

4 Replies to “Citizen journalism in action, or not?

  1. david brain – Variously a founder, director, investor, chairperson and cheerleader of Parkable, Enero, StickyBeak, Share My Super and The Spinoff. In exile in New Zealand. CTID.
    david brain says:

    Having given it some thought I think you are right that if people are in a public space then they are fair game for "citizen journalism". I wonder though where the line is? Is a "private" conversation one where someone is in a private space only? And if one happened on that space, would one be within rights to report it?

  2. It's one I've been pondering as well. It's to do with trust. Think it depends on why you're in that private space. For example, I was at Tom Watson's leaving party for stepping down as digital engagement minister. That was a semi-public event (lots of people who didn't all know each other), but it would have been a breach of trust to report from it. Overhearing a conversation in a hotel lobby, airport lounge or train where I have NO RELATIONSHIP with the people involved isn't a breach of trust. If I KNOW them, however slightly or even through a third party relationship, then it does start to become a breach of trust. At least I think that's what I think!

  3. I think you're probably right – if you know someone, reporting a private conversation is a breach of trust.

    That reminds me of the Carol Thatcher/golliwog comment that was made off-air to Adrian Chiles, after which she was axed from The One Show. On that basis, was whoever leaked that comment in breach of trust? Or should celebs and anyone else in the public eye just be a darn sight more careful about what they say whether in public or in private?!

  4. Digital channels aside its great story. As you say its likely that you could have seeded this to a national desk with a single call. Its a great case study that people will no doubt quote in media training sessions for years to come. Nice one.

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