God's Word for today

Sunday, 31 January 2010

How to fuel speculation by keeping quiet - lessons to be learnt?

What's the best way to fuel speculation when the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan? It's simple: Say nothing.

David Hallam, a Local Preacher who holds various other Methodist Church lay offices within his local Circuit in my home towm of Birmingham, England, has been waging an ongoing war on his blog Methodist Preacher with the "powers that be" of the Methodist Church of Great Britain over a document that is to be discussed this week.

The offending document that has sparked the war of words deals with what the authors regard as "appropriate" use of social media such a blogs, Facebook, and the like. And at first the whole issue seems to be a storm in a teacup, since the document does not appear to contain anything that one wouldn't find in any organisation that wishes to protect itself from abuse. Prohibitions on actions that bring the organisation into disrepute are not generally considered to be unreasonable.

So the Methodist Church of Great Britain (MCGB), it can be argued, is justified in putting together a set of guidelines aimed at protecting its reputation. Indeed, here at home the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, at its 2009 Conference, identified the need to "protect [its] corporate identity and image as their are mushrooming internet sites and social networks which purport to speak on behalf of the MCSA or being 'official' sites. For good governance purposes we are developing policies and guidelines to manage this practice" (MCSA 2010 Yearbook and Directory, Page 15).

The problem seems to come in, however, when an organisation seeks to develop such guidelines without consulting widely within the affected community. David Hallam's beef with the MCGB is largely around the lack of such consultation. While the MCGB document claims that it has consulted members of the UK's Methodist online community, David claims that none of the bloggers that he has regular contact with (himself included) were included in such consultation.

Given David's many years of involvement in both British and European politics (he is a former Member of the European Parliament), not to mention his reputation as one of British Methodism's most controversial bloggers, he was never likely to leave this issue to slip through quietly. And although his blog posts on this issue (see here, here, and here) have been considered by some to be somewhat "intemperate", the fact of the matter is that perception is reality in the mind of the perceiver, and given that we bloggers tend to be a feisty lot who are fiercely protective of our right to freedom of speech, David's posts were always likely to strike a chord with many.

Unfortunately, the official whom David consulted at Methodist House (the headquarters of the MCGB) appeared to have responded in a way that did little to dispel the speculation that the document was an attempt to gag bloggers. In 16 questions posed by David to one Toby Scott from Methodist House, 12 of those (i.e. 75%) were not commented on. Now while I don't want to speculate on Mr Scott's reasons - I don't know him from a bar of soap, nor am I aware of his position or role within the MCGB - not answering three-quarters of the questions posed to you can only add fuel to the fire of speculation that is already raging around this issue.

In my own experience, the more you come clean and tell people what they want to know, the less questions they feel the need to ask, and the more they would give you the benefit of the doubt and regard your motives as being honourable. I say this, not from having been spokesperson of any organisation, but from having had involvement with a number of organisations' finances (including the MCSA, having served as treasurer at both Society and Circuit level as well as serving on the District Finance Committee over a period of 12 years before I candidated for the full-time ministry).

And what I have found is this: 95% don't give a rat's proverbial about financial statements, policy documents, Laws and Disciplines, you name it. And of the remaining 5% who DO care, all they want to know is that things are being handled properly and in the best interests of the organisation.

Only a very tiny minority are passionate enough to make a song and dance out of it if things are not up to scratch. But when this minority gets its cage rattled, they can make waves that send ripples throughout the organisation, and once the "gripe vine" gets going, before too long half of the organisation's members believe its office-bearers are a bunch of self-serving, power-hungry megalomaniacs.

For the most part, organisations are better off imparting information than by withholding it. When South African food retailer Pick n Pay had a food contamination scare in its stores during 2008, it could have kept quiet and claimed that the blame lay with the supplier. Instead, it responded by publicising the launch a full investigation. A hotline was set up for people with concerns to 'phone for information. Full-page notices were placed in local newspapers. And Pick n Pay even offered to pay the medical costs of those who had eaten contaminated food. The result? Pick n Pay as an entity came out smelling of roses, it's trust by the shopping public greatly enhanced.

On a more personal level, two years ago the headmaster of my son's school wrote in the school's newsletter about the problems being experienced with illicit drug use by some of its learners. But instead of pushing his head in the sand and denying the existence of the problem, the headmaster instead acknowledged the problem and outlined the measures that the school was taking in response (counselling, rehabilitation, awareness programmes, and the like). And while I cannot comment on how any other parent may have felt upon reading this news, I for one felt confident that the problem was being adequately addressed.

The moral of the story? For goodness' sake, GIVE PEOPLE INFORMATION! This needs to be regular and timely. Obviously there are always going to be certain issues that need to be kept confidential, but in reality, how often is this actually the case?

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