Social Media and Freedom of Speech


Cape Town Tourism logoThe debate over freedom of speech in social media and the fine line between constructive and destructive criticism is an interesting talking point. Social media is pushing the traditional boundaries of freedom of speech.

The internet, and the immediacy thereof, is providing many new ways to interact with ideas. Blogs and social media are public spaces where metacognition rules.  The social media environment has given rise to a new phenomenon where content is generated and directed by consumer opinion and experience.  The consumer has become the marketer, the producer and the critic. Cape Town Tourism uses what is called the customer journey  as the very foundation of our marketing strategy, singling out the customer as Cape Town’s most important  marketer and story teller. We have embraced social media and the web as the most effective and cost-effective marketing platform of our city and its incredible experiences. In the run-up to the World Cup we decided to use Facebook to create a virtual fan park for Cape Town in our quest to turn soccer fans into fans of Cape Town.

The I ♥ Cape Town fan page was launched on 11 June 2010 (one year to kickoff) and quickly became a growing and active Cape Town brand ambassador community of proud citizens, homesick expats, previous visitors yearning for a return trip to the Mother City and first time visitors asking advice and tips from other fans. We stand at more than 160 000 fans, making it one of the largest destination Facebook fan pages. The rapid growth of the page was not aided by paid advertising. It has been purely organic, which shows the strength of brand Cape Town and the impact it has had on the lives of locals, international and domestic visitors, expats and the industry. It also illustrates that the story, more so than the product, has become the unique selling point. It is a story told by many voices and these voices cannot always be controlled or managed.

Whilst we are staunch supporters of freedom of expression, it does come with a great sense of responsibility. We have learnt that rules do apply to the world of Social Media, especially if you want your voice to be taken seriously and to garner respect – we apply some basic, unwritten rules of journalistic ethics, decency and professionalism to our social media presence and activities.

When social media, and in this case blogs, become soap boxes where ego’s clash and all sense of professionalism and decency is discarded for the sake of controversy and a better ranking on search engines, then I question the value of these platforms of “freedom of expression and opinion”. As someone else has said on this topic, no one benefits, least of all the tourism industry.

There is a very fine line between constructive feedback and personal vendettas disguised as professional reviews. As an industry we do need constructive criticism and Cape Town Tourism welcomes this, but when comments and feedback become destructive it serves very little purpose.  Just because blogs and social media are free and easily accessible doesn’t mean that rules of playing fair and good old common sense and decency need not apply.

The current debate has again highlighted the importance of defining the principles of honesty, transparency, respect, privacy, relevance, and responsibility within the social media communications realm. All of us participating in social media platforms, whether in our personal or professional capacity, are part of public dialogue and discourse. We need to take responsibility for our views expressed and the repercussions thereof.

Mariette du Toit-Helmbold
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold

Cape Town Tourism has specific procedures in place for dealing with grievances against our staff and / or our members. We have taken the necessary action against staff members who have helped to fuel the debate in contravention of Cape Town Tourism’s communications protocol. This does not mean that we condone bullying or will accept accusations made against a team member or a member of the industry without question.

Mariette du Toit-Helmbold is CEO of Cape Town Tourism


3 responses to “Social Media and Freedom of Speech”

  1. Cape Town Tourism can and should be far more robust and responsive to leading and forming public opinion.

    CapeInfo engaged with CTT on pricing issues in the lead up to 2010 WC for many months before you started addresses some very real issues. When you did start addressing the issues, you did so with great effect and we worked very closely with you, as we always strive to do.

    But you should have started earlier so our message here is: “lead more, react less.” A sore that is allowed to fester grows out of all proportions.

    CapeInfo removed a comment on our Spaniard in the Works blog by a member of CTT’s staff at CTT’s request. We did so with regret because, in our opinion, it was one of the sanest contributions to a debate and discussion.

    We question your use of “helped to fuel the debate” rather than having said “participated in a debate.” It seems as though you are saying that CTT staff may not participate in debates until an official view has been endorsed and sanitised by your board.

    Can you publish CTT’s communications protocols here for all to see?

    • I accept your point on “leading more and reacting less”, but we have also learned to pick our battles and focus on those things that will make the biggest difference in the long run.

      In terms of pricing, we held the first industry pricing workshops as far back as 2006, followed by a series of workshops with industry and MATCH where we debated the contract and the issue of price. This included many one on one meetings between members of the industry and MATCH. We enjoyed working with CapeInfo on this programme in the months leading up to the World Cup and appreciate your ongoing support and input. The issue of price and better value is as relevant now, post the World Cup, and will remain a focus area.

      We are leading the way in many relevant issues for Cape Town and tourism i.e. brand, eTourism and post-World Cup event strategy development.

      As far as the debate on Freedom of Speech in Social Media is concerned, I agree that Skye’s comments were very balanced. I am also not suggesting that team members may not participate in debate.

      It is important to adhere to communications protocal especially when the organisation and industry you represent are affected. Cape Town Tourism’s communication protocol is simple. As CEO, I am the official spokesperson and should lead external communications that affect Cape Town Tourism. Under special circumstances communication will be elevated to the Board Chairperson or delegated to an appropriate team member mandated to talk on an issue.

      In this instance (where the tourism industry is affected), it would have been more appropriate to discuss the issue internally and agree on our position as Cape Town Tourism before responding – it would’ve carried much more weight and prevented further personal attacts against one team member i.e. continue fueling the debate. Having the backing of an entire organisation and its board and speaking with one voice on key issues have a far greater impact and prevents the targeting of individuals.

      It is difficult seperating our personal and professional lives, especially if we represent certain key positions in an organisation. When our integrity and professionalism are questioned it is difficult not to react immediately, but I have learned that a well thought through and well timed response have a greater impact. Our stance as Cape Town Tourism is not to get involved in petty public mudslinging – but we will act and speak out when strategically important or relevant and then through the appropriate channel/s.

      As I said in my original response, we do not condone bullying neither do we just accept accusations made against a team member without question. We are dealing with this at the appropriate level.

      Great leadership is not always about running ahead of the pack – you run the risk of leaving your troups behind or lose sight of the bigger picture. It is often more effective to lead from behind with your eyes fixed on the prize.

      But…we never stop learning.

  2. Delicate position you are in Mariette. Cape Town Tourism is doing sterling work and you are seen to be leading the way. Skye is respected across the industry but sometimes you have to learn to keep your mouth shut.

    Good luck with the great work you are doing in positioning the city as a pacesetter.

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