Voice and vitriol

Voice and vitriol
Published: 2 October 2017

The fact that the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg had to use security guards at the recent Labour Party Conference is a sad statement about the sort of attention that expressing an opinion can attract in today’s society.  Equally, the death threats made against Gina Miller and the vile torrent of racial and sexist abuse aimed at Dianne Abbot are indicative of a culture whereby speaking up or taking action invites vitriol, violence or worse.

These three examples are of course female and there is a critical discussion to be had about the extent to which gender plays a role in drawing the venom of some of the worst elements of society.  But in the meantime, thought also needs to be given to the extent to which these episodes are limiting professionals’ personal expression and willingness to form opinions; contentious or otherwise. 

Digital progression has democratised our interaction with the world and we all have the opportunity to create an online persona that typifies what we want to be known for.  Certainly, within senior recruitment, the levers of Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and to a certain extent Facebook help to build a broader picture of an individual’s professional interests and public profile.  That is not to say that we make decisions based on online profiles, but we certainly look at them. 

When offering career advice, one of the staples covered is ensuring that candidates have a digital footprint to use as a networking tool and to demonstrate their knowledge and presence in any respective sector.  It goes without saying that this cannot be a showcase of extreme views or trolling (we would not expect to be in conversation with someone who displays those behaviours), but equally we believe that senior individuals should have an authentic voice. 

Yet anecdotally, whilst the momentum of social media enables these communiques to travel even further, the original content they are projecting is reducing.  In other words, we are digitally speaking, yet many of us are not saying as much as we used to. 

Any regular Twitter user knows how easy it is for discussions to explode, for interaction to become more aggressive and for opposing views to be increasingly personalised (and not in a good way).  It stands to reason that occurrences such as these discourage us from sticking our heads above the parapet; why would you want to get into a potentially embarrassing online spat? Why would you put your views out there for others to tear down? 

Clearly some roles are politically restricted and for obvious reasons the post-holder cannot project highly personalised opinions, yet the rest of us are being pulled into increasing numbers of anodyne, PR-related tweets and posts that do communicate, but do not necessarily speak.  I don’t advocate going full-on Kardashian, and whilst we all have opinions to share self-censorship is necessary; not for reasons of political correctness but because over-sharing is tedious. 

Therefore the call to arms is clear; bullying behaviours cannot and should not reduce our willingness to project our professional opinions.  The digital movement is such that there is room for everyone to be heard and the greater the number of reasonable individuals who are willing to project, the more ridiculous and marginalised become the voices of those who wish to threaten or silence discussion. 

Elizabeth James is an Associate Partner and leads Berwick Partners’ Education Practice.

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