In a flap: What can we learn from the ‘liars’ social media storm?

A leading wildlife charity caused a social media flap when it branded leading politicians ‘liars’.

The RSPB aired its frustration on X – formerly known as Twitter – after the government announced it was scrapping legislation that protected rivers.

Yet just a few hours later, its bold social media activity was replaced by apologies.

So, what can we learn from this saga?

Is it too risky for charities to be brave on social media?

Well, let’s take a look at what happened.

The UK’s largest conservation charity posted a picture of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Therese Coffey with ‘liars!’ stamped across them in red text.

And it said: “You said you wouldn’t weaken environmental protections. And yet that’s just what you are doing. You lie, and you lie, and you lie again. And we’ve had enough.”

It then went on to outline these ‘lies’ over a sprawling thread.

Not surprisingly, the posts grabbed plenty of attention.

There was plenty of praise. But also criticism, including from charity’s trustee Ben Caldecott.

And from the mainstream media, where it was labelled a “provisional wing of the Labour Party” by The Sun.

After initially saying it stood by the posts, the conservation charity apologised a few hours later.

It said: “We are in a nature and climate emergency and that demands urgent action. The RSPB is deeply frustrated by the government’s reneging on its environmental promises. But that frustration led us to attack the people not the policy.

“This falls below the standard we set ourselves and for that we apologise.

“We will continue to campaign vigorously on behalf of nature, but we will always do so in a polite and considered manner.”

Yet, as sorry as the charity says it is (more on this later), the offending post is still live.

It has now had more than 10m views, received more than 50,000 likes and been shared more than 27,000 times.

 

Blame

As interest in the story grew – and it moved from social to mainstream media – chief executive Beccy Speight appeared on the Today programme.

Visible leadership is crucial in crisis communication, so this should be applauded.

She admitted the charity was “so frustrated and angry” about the changes to environmental rules. But said that the “framing” of the post had been "incorrect and inappropriate".

She also added, when pressed, that she had not approved the post.

“I didn’t approve it,” she told presenter Nick Robinson. “It didn’t go through our normal protocols.”

That may be the case. But it raises the question of “who’s to blame?”.

During our crisis communication training courses, we discuss the importance of taking responsibility and not blaming others.

 

Sign-off

And this brings us neatly on to sign-off.

I’m not a great advocate of having social media activity signed off at the top – I once worked for an organisation where every single tweet needed approval.

But there are times when it is wise.

Calling three members of the government ‘liars’ when you receive government funds and are an organisation that cannot run political campaigns, strikes me as the sort of social media activity that needs senior approval.

Gut instinct is often right in these situations. People would have known these sorts of posts would be divisive and controversial and should have gathered the views of the organisation’s leaders.

It is hard to believe – as I’ve seen suggested – that one employee simply “went rogue”.

 

Creative

Social media is loud. It is busy. As we stress during our social media training, you must be creative to grab attention.

And that means making difficult decisions and raising controversial issues.

We often use the TRUTH acronym during our social media training to describe what makes something grab attention. It stands for Timely, Relevant, Unusual, Trouble and Human.

The Trouble element can be crucial. People are drawn to controversy.

But social media is also divisive, and any attempt to raise the temperature can heat up those divisions.

So, if you are going to be bold, you must be prepared for a backlash – both on social media and in traditional media.

 

Audience

The other key consideration with punchy social media activity is it must fit your brand and tone.

RSPB has a reputation for being polite, measured and respectful, so there are questions about whether the ‘liars’ posts fit with that.

And, of course, while these posts are likely to appeal to those who dislike the government, you have to assume a reasonable proportion of the charity’s membership are Conservative voters.

Will they share its views or decide to take their donations elsewhere?

It is vital to carefully consider the audience and whether they are likely to support your approach and feel the same way.

 

Climbdown

When you’ve been bold on social media, backtracking is not a good look.

Those whose attention and support you’ve gained are quickly turned off.

And you can end up alienating those you need to work with – meaning you’ve now annoyed both those offended by the initial posts and those who supported it.

If you are planning to be edgy on social media, remember the words of poet John Lydgate: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

 

Have you downloaded our new crisis eBook?

Our latest eBook - The Crisis Communication Checklist - is a step-by-step guide to responding when the worst happens. Download your free copy now.

Apology

So, a few hours after publishing its posts, the charity apologised.

But it is not really an apology, is it? It didn’t say sorry. It just said, “we apologise”. There’s a difference.

And it contains plenty of context and excuses.

It is not the sort of apology that draws a line under an issue.

Maybe that was the intention – it seems to fit with the policy of keeping the posts live.

But during our crisis communication training, we always stress that when you apologise, it must, at the very least, seem like you mean it.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our crisis communication and social media training courses.

Our Services

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

Ways - Online learning
Ways - Videoconference
Ways - Blended
Ways - In-Person
Training by videoconference
Identifying positive media stories
How to film and edit professional video on a mobile
Media skills refresher
Blended media skills
TV studios
Crisis communications
Presentation skills and personal impact
Media training
Message development and testing
Presentation Skills Training
Crisis communication training
Crisis management testing
Leadership Communication Training
Writing skills training
Social media training
Online learning
Open Courses
Media myth-busting & interview ‘survival’ skills workshop

Recommended Reading

Crisis management — 17 July by Media First

Wake up to woke: Should you be worried about the 'war on woke'?

Society can often appear to be more divided and polarised than ever. And it can feel like plenty of negativity surrounds ‘wokeness’. So, should brands stop raising awareness of injustices and avoid…

Crisis management — 4 July by Adam Fisher

Your questions answered from our crisis comms webinar

If a crisis struck your organisation tomorrow, what would you do? Do you have a crisis communications plan? Are you confident it works? Facing a crisis is daunting. It can expose you to massive…