How not to limit freedom of expression in the digital era

Guest blog by my friend and colleague in Northern Ireland, Kathleen Holmlund:

I am often dismayed by how many organizations fumble basic crisis communications, especially in today’s digital age. Consequently, when something goes wrong, things tend to snowball.

9-year-old Martha Payne

The latest example … a rural Scottish council yesterday decided to close down the food blog of a nine-year old girl, Martha Payne, and their action has attracted not only international headlines but has gotten angry denunciations.

Young Martha decided to become an advocate for healthier school lunches and to raise funds for Mary’s Meals, a charity that funds school food in Africa. Nonsense! cried the Council. Seems the Council was concerned that local press coverage of the blog would lead to a change in food catering staff. Such a bother.

Martha, who lives with her family in Argyll, Scotland, started publishing photographs of her school lunches on NeverSeconds back in April. Her father helped her set up the simple blog, and her school welcomed this initiative and supported her fully.

When you go to her blog, you will see Martha gave each meal a ‘food-o-meter’ and health rating, and counted the number of mouthfuls it took her to eat it. (Clever girl!) Here is an example for the meal she was served on June 12:

School lunch

Food-o-meter– 10/10

  • Mouthfuls- 37
  • Courses- main/dessert
  • Health Rating- 5/10
  • Price- £2
  • Pieces of hair- 0
  • Ease of eating with wrist in stookie- 9/10
  • Wristband- Yellow

As the blog’s popularity began to grow, she decided she wanted to help raise money for the Mary’s Meals charity that funds school food in Africa. She set a target of £7,000 (about $11,000) and encouraged her readers to donate to the charity. As of June 14, she had helped raise some £2,000 (about $3,200).

On June 14, however, Martha was informed by her head teacher that the Argyll and Bute Council had decided she could no longer post pictures of her school lunches on her blog. She was forbidden from bringing her camera to school.

Martha then put up a post on her blog under the headline “Goodbye” informing her readers that she would no longer be blogging.

Within hours, media and public response on social media channels went through the roof. Her story went global. In the space of 24 hours, the response to the council’s decision led to:

  • over 250 articles around the world,
  • more than six (6) million views of her blog
  • almost 2,000 comments on her “Goodbye” post
  • celebrity support over Twitter by the likes of Jamie Oliver
  • the £7,000 target for Mary’s Meals exceeding the £30,000 mark

After all this media and public outcry, the Argyll and Bute Council felt compelled and shamed into immediately lift the ban. Martha is now free to photograph her school meals again and maintain her blog.

All I can say is that I am glad I wasn’t in the room when the Argyll and Bute Council made the decision to ban Martha from taking photos of her school dinners as I would have strongly advocated to the contrary foreseeing the kind of backlash this would bring about with the media and over the internet. As an advocate for healthy food though with the non-profit Zomppa – Food Good, Social Good, I am delighted how this incident has brought the subject of healthy school lunches to the forefront of internet, print and broadcast news here in the UK.

Kathleen’s online … click here.