UCL trial by Twitter over Professor Tim Hunt ill judged

By June 25, 2015 No Comments

I feel the need to weigh in on the Professor Tim Hunt affair. Sorry, poor choice of words. Maybe ‘saga’ is better. We should probably avoid the suggestion of romance, ex-marital or otherwise, with the Nobel Prize-winning evolutionary biologist, lest we be judged in the court of Twitter, where innocence is never presumed or rather, never exists.

We’ve heard countless opinions in the mainstream media – I’m sure you’ve already formed a pretty solid one yourself – but I’m not a mainstream commentator and this isn’t a news blog.

Working for a digital creative agency I’m in the unique and thoroughly frustrating position of knowing the problem at play here

My take comes from a different angle: we’ve delved recently into changing attitudes towards social media – how values we hold deep shift with the times, and how corporations and individuals alike have had to re-think their tone and approach in how they go public with their communications.

To my mind, this Professor witch-Hunt is a perfect example of supposedly savvy, modern institutions’ failure to adapt to and master the delicate art of social media marketing.

Baying for blood

The bigger mistake was not Sir Tim Hunt’s utterly ill judged comments, but the handling by University College London (UCL), where he held an honorary position. My personal frustration is that UCL also happens to be my old university, and whose core values I uphold implicitly. This time, however, UCL was wrong.

Here’s a quick recap: biologist Professor Tim Hunt goes to South Korea to speak at a conference, where he reportedly says that the “trouble with girls” in laboratories is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”.

He says the comments were meant in jest; the social media-sphere takes them at face value chauvinism. Cue outrage. The Twitter mob bays for blood and with haste UCL allegedly informs the Nobel laureate that he can either jump ship or be pushed; UCL says Hunt offered his resignation voluntarily while Hunt claims he was ‘hung out to dry’. Whatever the case, this reaction also sees Professor Hunt quit his esteemed position at the Royal Society and hey presto, the career of one of our great scientists is in ruins.

Recruitment marketing for STEM women

Now, first of all let’s get one thing straight: joke or otherwise, what he said was unfathomably stupid. That is under no dispute, particularly, it should be noted, amongst Hunt’s defendants, some of whom are female scientists that he has mentored.

Male dominance in science is a huge issue and I know first-hand the challenge to find more female scientists and engineers. Here at Southerly, in several areas of our own client work we craft recruitment content marketing with the specific remit of attracting women into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. Needless to say, his comments don’t exactly help.

But it was a joke, it was silly, he is 72 years old, your granddad’s probably said worse and actually meant it, and ultimately the reaction was disproportionate.

Equal messages of equality

Here’s the thing: I get UCL’s commitment to promoting diversity and equality in academia, it’s one of the reasons I was attracted to the university and why I continue to have undying respect for it promoting core values that I share. I get that UCL felt that, on the very public forum of social media, it had to be seen to support equality outright – to publicly show support of female scientists and denounce antiquated attitudes – it’s part of the brand of UCL and that messaging needs to come through its social communications.

I get that. But I’m afraid the need to uphold UCL’s values was not what governed its reaction. It was a fear of the mob, and this was trial by Twitter.

It’s a forum where YOU control the tone and showing an honest human side is the most effective put-down

A strategy for dealing with it

It pains me to say that UCL shot itself in the foot; it could have extinguished this whole thing by showing due respect to all parties involved.

UCL could have denounced Sir Tim’s comments, given him a slap on the wrists and announce that he will be subject to a disciplinary and that the matter will be handled internally, while also allowing him the right to reply and formally apologise. It could then separately and very publicly recognise the challenges faced in recruiting women to STEM subjects, launch a reactionary campaign in support of women in science, and put Hunt front and centre. UCL is a respected and reputed enough institution to be able to laugh the idiots off, but being too wrapped up in protecting its reputation in the short-term made it difficult to see any long-term benefits (and there are numerous) of telling everyone to just chill the hell out.

What I just did there was design for UCL an ad hoc social media strategy that doesn’t just protect its reputation; it completely upholds its core values of total equality and fairness. It’s not fanning the flames; it smothers them. Everybody wins.

Adaptability rules

Going back to our changing attitudes in a social media world – and I make this point because I see first hand that this problem is endemic with new digital companies as much as it is with more ‘traditional’ organisations – the issue is one of short-sightedness.

Content people say they’re savvy enough, but the threat of blanket reputational damage seems to send them into hissy fits. Like the politician that refuses to answer a press question directly they retract into ultra guarded, overly corporate messaging. But social media isn’t a press conference; it’s a forum where YOU control the tone and showing an honest human side is the most effective put-down, and as my colleague David mentioned on Tuesday – adaptability is key.

Nobody seems to quite know how a trust bottom line is gained or eroded

We always say this content game is a marathon, not a sprint. Trust is currency and you don’t get a money pit overnight, though neither do you lose one overnight. Accountability has a cost, and companies have long had to implement protections against being sued; now it’s the value of reputation that must be protected.

Only while companies know how litigation might affect their monetary bottom line, nobody seems to quite know how a trust bottom line is gained or eroded. Unless you’re completely reprehensible it’s actually not that easy. What is easy is showing backbone against the perennial trolls that show none.

In the case of UCL, too many social media scare stories told the university that it would suffer irreparably at the hands of the Twitter mob, when actually if it had taken a step back it would realise that the mob is fleeting and common sense always prevails. You don’t bow to the trolls that lurk in the shadows, you headbutt them in front of their friends. One of the key rules of content marketing and social media is transparency; actually dealing with negativity head on and sensibly shows integrity – being reactionary in this way earns trust.

I’m angry because an institution I care about deeply made a grave error of judgment, which resulted in the destruction of the career of one of our great minds. Working for a digital creative agency I’m in the unique and thoroughly frustrating position of knowing the problem at play here, and moreover how to deal with it professionally and properly. Better still, I inherently know how to turn what most will fear is reputational suicide into bonus rounds with bigger prizes.

Like so many companies I come across daily, UCL appears guilty of being far too guarded. Normally I’d be advising a company on how to deal with all this, or rather I’d just avoid it in the first place. As it stands I’m consigned to frustratingly watch from the sidelines as one of this country’s most reputed institutions unnecessarily erodes its own reputation.

As a creative content producer I would say that with a measured content strategy, one that considers proper social media strategies and tone of voice, this could have turned out roses for all. Basically, everyone needs a lesson in choosing their words better.

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