Toby Scott, Director of communications and campaigns for the Methodist Church and author of the Social Media paper we discussed yesterday, answers a few questions.
Your job title is “Director of communications and campaigns”. Can you tell us what you do?
I manage the work of the communications team - events, internet communications and media - as well as creating and implementing our communication strategy, advising senior staff and developing policies such as this as requested.
So why does the Methodist Church need guidance about social media?
Because whilst social media do offer great opportunities, there are also risks. As the paper points out, but some people seem to forget, the laws of defamation apply to blogs and other social media. Similarly, there have been cases in other organisations of staff being sacked for misuse of social media, either in the content or by doing it in work time. Finally, in governance and other bodies there concerns have been raised about members of those bodies spending more time on social media than on the matters at hand.
The other answer is “because the Connexional Leaders Forum asked for it.” They felt as a body that they wanted some guidelines, and the job arrived on my desk.
The other other answer is that most comparable organisations have similar guidelines. The key point for us is that we already have rules for office holders about bringing the church into disrepute, as well asthe laws of the land on libel etc. These guidelines don’t change those existing rules at all: they just make clear how those existing rules apply in these new and fast-changing areas.
There’s a little confusion about who this advice is for. Can you clarify?
The people that these will apply to as rule are Council employees, i.e. the lay members of the Connexional Team and certain other groups such as DDEs*. (District Development Enablers) The Council is also seeking rules for its own members during meetings. For everyone else, they are guidelines or suggested best
practice. People don’t have to follow them, but should remember that our own rules and the laws of the land do apply. The guidelines also remind people that the speed of social media - which are one of the strongest
features - can lead you to say something quickly that might later cause regret, but which will stay online for ever.
We want more people to make use of online media, but doing so brings people face to face with the negative side of the Internet, so this paper tries to forewarn of the pitfalls.
Aren’t you trying to stifle criticism of ‘headquarters’ from outside?
Not in the slightest! We welcome constructive criticism. My whole communication strategy is built around spending as much time “listening” as “talking” and social media are a great way to hear what matters to
people across the Connexion. It’s why I check about 20 Methodist blogs a day - I want to know what matters to people.
One area that the paper only touches on, but needs more work in the future, is how we react to someone’s “online record” (for want of a better phrase) when they seek office in the church. Should googling someone’s name become a routine part of recruitment? I’d hope not, but it might happen. We need a lot more work on this, because we always want to forgive but we also have obligations in relation to safeguarding and
What do you think are the biggest opportunities that the new social media offer?
Many, and they keep growing. For example we had over 2,500 people following the Twitter stream from Conference (not the 150 in the paper - I took the wrong figure.) That’s more people being kept up to date
through Twitter than were present in the hall. We were the first major British denomination to launch a podcast, and that attracts about 1,000 listeners a month. We haven’t yet made extensive use of Facebook, but other parts of the Church have to great effect. We ran a blog alongside the 2007 Lent Campaign to great effect, and the President and Vice President’s blog enables people to stay in touch with what those two office holders are doing.
But the biggest opportunities are in the ability social media gives to anyone to reach others. So the biggest effects will be within districts or circuits, or across groups with common interests that can’t physically meet often. We might eventually be able to get some high profile things like the Council “meeting” online as well as its physical gatherings, but the biggest opportunities will be found far beyond Methodist Church House.
I’m glad that in this nobody has so far said “if John Wesley was alive today he’d be using Facebook rather than riding around on his horse.” This is clearly not true: the mission of the Church, and individual ministry (lay and ordained), and evangelism and pastoral care all happen through personal contact. All of the media available to us from the printing press onwards can help, but there will never be a substitute for being with people when it comes to sharing the Gospel.
* See the correction in the comments below.