Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Fran Unsworth's bad start

Fran Unsworth, the Acting Director of BBC news, has requested that staff don’t tweet about the ongoing problems at the Corporation. While I understand her anxiety at staff talking to outsiders about what’s going on, what she said was wrong-headed and self-defeating.

I’ve worked for a few years in Internal Communications, a role which is meant to influence what staff across organisations think and feel. I’ve worked with leaders who want to stop staff talking about certain topics, in the hope that their thoughts, ideas and feelings on that topic will magically disappear. They don’t. Ms Unsworth has been badly advised on this one, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, she must have known that the email would leak. Now it looks like she’s trying to pointlessly stifle discussion and debate, when surely the BBC’s role is to make people think and talk.

Secondly, she also must have known that millions of people across the company are talking about the ongoing problems at the BBC. Indeed, many people have commented on the macabre abundance of the Corporation’s coverage of its own problems. This isn’t confined to official news programmes, but senior, visible staff such as Robert Peston and Victoria Derbyshire, who are also speaking out about the problems. As part of the BBC’s senior management, Ms Unsworth surely also must know that people follow their leaders. If Robert Peston feels it’s OK to comment on Helen Boaden’s temporary replacement, why isn’t it OK for the rest of the staff?

Thirdly, it’s much better to have those conversations playing out in public, rather than in private. This might sound counter-intuitive, but a quick search of Twitter would give Ms Unsworth a valuable insight into how people -including her people- were feeling about the situation. In making this request, she’s not going to stop the conversations happening - they’ll simply be in hushed pub corners and over dinner tables rather than where she and her staff can see them and respond if needed.

Finally, if your communications to your staff are right, they’ll be saying largely the right things to their friends and family anyway. They’ll be acknowledging that there are problems, and they’ll probably be saying how unsettled they feel. But if Ms Unsworth told them the story of how she and her colleagues are trying to sort the problems out, those song of those same tweeting BBC staff would be from exactly the right hymn sheet.

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