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The tweet that brought a new meaning to reputational damage

Let’s leave aside the merits of Gary Lineker’s tweet about the Government’s immigration policy. Instead, let’s focus on how an expression of opinion has turned into this controversy.

On the one side, we had Lineker, who remained adamant that tweeting in his personal capacity did not breach the BBC’s impartiality rules. Contrast this with his employer’s (actually he is a freelancer so technically the BBC is not his employer) view that he did breach the rules, and, as a consequence, had to step down from Match of the Day until the social media rules of engagement were agreed between the parties.

The weekend witnessed BBC programming schedules fall as other sporting commentators and pundits refused to broadcast as a way of supporting Lineker. To make matters worse, allegations of inconsistency were being levelled at the BBC from every quarter for its real or perceived mis-management of impartiality.

The problem at the heart of this fiasco was that the guidelines were unclear in numerous aspects, particularly in their applicability to sports roles and how this operated for freelancers who have other roles outside the BBC. This is a common problem with workplace social media policies, which blur the boundaries between work and private life because of a reticence to put restrictions on the latter. The result is that employees are not necessarily aware that personal social media posts may have relevance to the workplace, particularly when they bring their employer into disrepute.

It is not an easy balance for employers to strike because there are limitations on how far they can reach into their employees’ personal lives and their freedom of expression. That does not mean that boundaries cannot be set or expectations managed but it must be done in a clear and simple way, which does not fudge challenging issues. The policy then needs to be brought to life in training and everyday conversations, and operated in a consistent manner so that its messages are reinforced.

Lineker's tweet and its aftermath tarnished the BBC’s reputation significantly, and its raison d’etre has been called into question. Now resolved, hard lessons will be learned. The guidelines will be reviewed to remove those grey areas and bring greater clarity to social media restrictions and permissions. No doubt contractual arrangements with key individuals will be dovetailed into those reviewed guidelines, and practices will be modified in order to achieve greater consistency.


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