What can Gary Lineker teach us about social media guidelines?

The BBC is planning to review its social media guidelines after Gary Lineker was reinstated as Match of the Day presenter, following his tweets about the Government’s immigration policy. The Lineker story sheds light on what an increasingly messy and difficult business it can be to govern the personal social media opinions of employees, or anyone associated with an organisation.

So what can we learn from the Gary Lineker story about what companies can expect from their colleagues on social media?

First off, it is important to clarify that having your people on social media is not a bad thing. It is essential for developing relationships, converting clients, and getting to know journalists.

I’ve written several social media policies over the years, and they can be very effective if they have the right amount of guidance, support and accountability built in. Yet the events unfolding at the BBC have made me stop and think what organisations should do when it’s hard to enforce social media guidance.

What if someone wants to tweet about an issue which represents their values, but not yours?

In Lineker’s case, a compromise has been reached where he will be bound by the guidelines until the social media guidelines are reviewed. What makes enforcing social media guidance especially hard today, is that so many of us now define ourselves by what we stand for. And three years of remote working have shifted the power between employers and employees. Thanks to employee activism, staff now expect to have a voice in a way that they didn’t have pre-2020.

But before you rip up your social media guidelines, here are some thoughts on how you might want to review them post-Lineker:

Be balanced

When the BBC launched their social media guidelines in October 2020 my first thought was that they were unworkable. Social media guidance needs to be proportionate to be effective.  If it’s not, then credibility is lost. The BBC guidelines  state that staff should ‘avoid virtue signalling’ and should think twice before joining campaigns. Staff are advised to be careful with emojis in case they damage the impartiality of a post. It’s heavy-handed stuff.

When you draft social media guidance for your team you must treat them like adults. Design it with them. Not for them. Involve them step by step in the process and test it out on them as you go. Have frank conversations about scenarios and what you- and they- are comfortable with them saying. You’ve hired them for a reason, so back your decision and give them the tools to represent the organisation and themselves.

Discuss and promote your values from the get-go

A crisis rarely blows up out of the blue. It can often be the result of some internal, or external, issue that has been bubbling away for a while.  As part of the process of co-designing your social media guidelines with staff, you should discuss the values you all stand for and how you will live those if a communications crisis hits.

This is not an easy conversation to have and when issues are discussed which matter a great deal to individuals it requires psychological safety on both sides, and the confidence to be vulnerable. Yet you’ll be glad you discussed it now, rather than later.

A crisis can be an opportunity to reaffirm your values and attract new advocates. This is where it can be an opportunity in disguise.


Review your governance 

What the BBC and Lineker story shows is how hard governance in the age of digital can be. Social media is just one element of digital. Yet it’s a great example of how there can be a hive of digital activity in organisations (whether it’s digital communications, online service delivery or product development) and yet the oversight, strategy and execution are not actually aligned.

What next?

This is certainly not the last time we will see a high-profile leader and their use of social media lead to controversy. Yet the process of how you set parameters for what your staff do on social media does not need to be adversarial. It is not you versus them…

It is about everyone’s coming together so that their ideas and values help you drive change and continuity.