Two takeaways from the Lineker - BBC stand off

15 March 2023  |  Insights
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It’s been quite a week for the BBC and Director-General Tim Davie, after their decision to temporarily step down sports broadcaster Gary Lineker from his duties, in response to his public Twitter rebuttal of the government’s policy on how to deal with refugees arriving on our shores. Even an organisation as reputable and well-stocked as the BBC appears to have been caught off guard by the drastic escalation of the public reaction and media scrutiny that inevitably followed.

As things stand, Lineker is set to re-take his Match Of The Day throne almost as quickly as he lost it, after several days of dialogue with the BBC which resulted in the announcement of an impending independent review of the BBC’s social media guidelines.

On the news that he would be reinstated, Lineker tweeted, “I’m delighted that we have navigated a way through this. I want to thank you all for the incredible support, particularly my colleagues at BBC Sport, for the remarkable show of solidarity.”

Regardless of which side you land on in this politically-charged debate, there are some key lessons that can be learned and applied in the context of your organisation. Here are two things to consider in your public relations approach:

1 Don’t underestimate the power of social media

Social media can be a powerful tool for raising awareness on key issues and whipping up support far beyond your immediate network and following. It is capable of taking a local message addressed to the few and transforming it into a trend for the masses, within hours. This can work both for or against you as an organisation, depending on why your content has gained traction. Social media has the potential to mobilise people who share the same interests and values as you do, which is helpful for promoting your brand, fundraising appeals, upcoming events or moving people to act. However, in the case of the BBC the same applies to negative publicity and if you are making unwanted headlines, the momentum can be almost impossible to stop.

While the BBC clearly recognised Lineker’s social media reach – their decision to suspend him was due to his comments being made to his 8.9 million Twitter followers – they failed to foresee the incoming ‘solidarity’ as Lineker mentioned above.

A flurry of BBC sport broadcasters such as Alex Scott, Jermaine Jenas, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright all declared on social media that they would not appear last weekend, in support of their colleague and friend.

Hoardes of people took to social media so show their support, with hashtags including #IStandWithGary and #Solidarity trending on Twitter to take the story stratospheric. This was a powerful act of togetherness which itself added pressure to the powers that be at the BBC.

Due to the impact that social media can have on public perceptions of your brand, prioritise investing in your digital media and communications team (if you can). Supply training so that you have people with expertise communicating with your audience, in a way that positions your organisation positively and reflects your brand values. You will reap the rewards if your content is priming you to go viral in a positive way.

2 People value transparency

The best way to build trust with your network of influence as an organisation is to demonstrate transparency. This not only counts when you are asking for finance or sharing your heart behind your mission, it also comes to the fore when you make a lapse in judgement in your communications (which happens to us all). Being quick to apologise and rectify the situation is vital to maintaining that trust with people.

It won’t be comfortable or a fond memory, but being able to put your hand up as an organisation and own your misstep tells the world that no matter what the cost, you will always put respect and transparency before reputation and pride. It’s particularly important for brands that rely on funding – whether that’s a charity accountable to its donors, or a publicly-funded body like the BBC.

In the BBC’s case, they were slow to respond in the aftermath of the Lineker decision and this allowed the uncertainty over his future to fester and gather pace over the weekend. Unfortunately for them, this was peak sports broadcasting time, which only served to add fuel to the fire.

An agreement between Lineker and Tim Davie was announced late on Monday, which means that there was a period of three days between the initial decision to remove Gary Lineker to him then being reinstated. Of course time needed to be given for talks, but 72 hours felt like less of an unhurried review and more like a lack of a plan. The BBC’s inability to read the room allowed the social media pile-on to gather momentum, as more and more high-profile names posted in support of Lineker, which in turn escalated the national feeling that one of the BBC or Lineker himself was out of line.

Even in the reinstating of Lineker to his broadcasting duties, while Tim Davie did apologise for the disruption caused to sport viewers he stopped short of apologising for stepping down Lineker, maintaining that the BBC did not back down in bringing him back. To some these statements simply do not go far enough to quiet the issue on either side.

Most onlookers will agree that the whole spectacle was a communications own goal for the broadcaster.

By Liam Flint, Marketing and Communications Officer, Jersey Road PR

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