Internet Presence

Someone is Wrong on the InternetFollowing on from my post yesterday, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on what is appropriate internet presence for a member of the clergy, whether it’s social media, a website, email style etc. This is also in the context of someone privately mentioning to me that as a priest holding PTO and not formally licensed, I had much more freedom to say what I say and do what I do than other clergy, licensed laity and church and diocesan staff.

In some senses that is correct. When someone pays your bills then they have a greater right to demand of you certain things in relation to your exercising of the work that you are paid to do. So, for example, if you work for the Department of Health it would be inappropriate to have a blog where every post is an abusive diatribe about senior staff in the NHS. Or to bring the example closer to home for many, if you are the Associate Vicar of a church it is inappropriate for you to have a twitter account that you use to slag off the Vicar of the church at which you serve (and yes, I have seen this happen – some people have no awareness of what “public” actually means).

Of course if someone doesn’t pay your bills then you might still have an accountability for what you write, but it is a different kind of relationship. Clergy for example, whether they are licensed or hold PTO, are subject to the Canons of the Church of England and there is that glorious parlance of “Conduct Unbecoming a Clerk in Holy Orders” that is the bain of many a priest and the joy of many a writer of a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure. And it isn’t just clergy of course – any employee or office holder has a duty of care within his working life to make sure he represents his/her employer appropriately. As we have also seen in the news, some employers take great offence (rightly or wrongly) to what you might or might not say and do in your private life, but here the legalities are less clear. It’s fairly obvious that a priest is a priest 100% of the time and one who gets riotously drunk in the local hostelry every evening is going to land a meeting with the Archdeacon sooner rather than later. For a factory worker the situation is different – one can hardly bring the factory into disrepute by getting hammered, but if the hangover affects your job then their employer has a case. So too with the internet – if your activity on social media prevents you doing your job properly (and this applies more to those with a public or representative role) then your employer or line management has a duty of care to intervene.

The issue of course is what is the scope of your representation for the organisation you work for or are attached to and what can they reasonably demand? For example, if a Church of England priest is also a journalist can the Bishop threaten to remove a licence if said journalist uncovers wrong doing in the Church and publishes the evidence? Clearly not – the issue is whether the actual actions of the individual are a cause of conduct unbecoming, not whether they annoyingly make public that which others may want to keep private. Indeed, on might even want to utilise the skill sets of someone with such a useful forensic approach to understanding and articulating complex situations. On the other hand is someone consistently makes libellous allegations about individuals, then you have every right to intervene. Unfortunately some people cannot see the difference between these two situations.

The problem often with internet presence is that many people jump to conclusions too soon. Employees need to be aware that things that are put into the public domain are actually in the public domain – don’t conclude that only your friends will read or be interested in what you put online. What you say on Twitter stays on Twitter, what you comment on a blog stays on a blog, if you leave your Facebook profile open or have “friends” who are not so much friends then your posts are in the public domain. The joys of having a visible public presence are also the pitfalls – everything you put into the public domain stays in the public domain, sometimes for an irritatingly long time. On the flip-side, I have known a Bishop who was utterly ignorant about how the internet works and complained when a priest has linked to a site that on another page links to another site that has some offensive material on it. Seriously folks, you are NOT responsible for what other people do unless you ARE responsible directly. Your employees and office holders cannot control websites they don’t control. The internet is a free flow of information and opinion and not all of it is healthy or inoffensive, so be careful out there but don’t blame someone if you decide to click on something that takes you somewhere unpleasant unless they told you to do so OR they have direct responsibility for filtering that kind of material.

What it all boils down to is this. You need to remember that you are responsible for your actions in relationship to your employment or office holding in as much as they impact said employment or office holding. The degree and range of that influence is something that needs to be carefully assessed and good line management makes that very clear (for example, in my current job I am not allowed to mention who my clients are UNLESS they have given permission, and I’m also not allowed to criticise clients publicy even if we have a confidentiality agreement with them – all this makes perfect sense). Specifically within the Church of England some dioceses have such policies (for example, here is Oxford’s rather good policy), but many don’t and rely on “common sense”. Well as we all know, one person’s common sense is another person’s lunacy.

Thoughts?

We’ll go back to talking about sex soon, I promise you….