Abdullah’s words, which she deeply regrets, might never have been seen by the families of the young men who died had it not been for the fact that some people who spotted them noticed that her Twitter profile said she had written for the Guardian. This led some Twitter users to leap to the conclusion that she was on the newspaper’s staff, which amplified their shock and surprise.
Last week the Guardian received complaints about tweets made by a writer who occasionally writes for the Comment is Free section of its website.
This week, readers’ editor Chris Elliott dealt with the incident, in which the freelancer Kia Abdullah, made an attempt at some black humour on Twitter following the deaths of three backpackers in Thailand. The joke backfired and Abdullah’s association with the Guardian led to complaints to the paper. Even Alan Rusbridger, the editor in chief, ended up commenting when he described the remarks as “grossly insensitive”.
I won’t go into too much detail about the original tweets (which Abdullah has now removed on request and apologised for) and the aftermath which Elliott has described in his column. What I want to post about is freelancing and responsibility to our clients and how far this should go.
In his column, Elliott asks what lessons can be learned from this episode in relation to how the Guardian manages its relationship with freelancers. Indeed, the Guardian was only dragged into this because Abdullah referred to her work for the paper on her Twitter profile. Elliot asks:
If freelances want to associate themselves with the paper, can we require them not to bring the paper into disrepute?
This is a reasonable question. I have a number of freelance clients including two major broadcasters, a trade union magazine and corporate clients. In fact, I also do some work for a website managed by the Guardian itself. But none of these names feature on my Twitter profile, although you can find them elsewhere on my web presence.
As a freelancer, I like to be independent – it’s not the reason I freelance, but it is something I treasure about this way of working. I like to reflect this in “my brand”, if that’s what you call it.
In fact on social media I have a tendency to be a bit coy about who I am working for. It’s not being evasive, it’s just about maintaining my independence by not associating myself too closely with a particular client. If I was an employee, I would be much more upfront about my work.
Of course, other freelancers prefer to be more explicit about who they work for, often because the association works well for them. Others see it as being transparent. But it is a fair requirement to ask of freelancers not to do anything that would undermine the reputation of a client if they choose to use that client’s name in their social media profile.
This also applies to those of us who don’t associate so closely with a particular media organisation. We have a responsibility to our clients, plus making insensitive statements that can be easily taken out of context on social media undermines our own brand too.
One concern I have about the notion that Elliott raises is how far this would go. Getting freelancers to think before making a comment on the boundaries of taste is fair enough. But I would hope this wouldn’t make freelancers disinclined to tweet about media issues that involve their clients, especially at such an interesting time.
I will follow the Guardian’s exploration of these issues with its readership and await with interest to see the implications that this discussion will have for freelancers.