The Power of One

Power structures have changed, permanently, and in ways which we are only beginning to explore. Hierarchies are being swept aside. Large organizations can be defeated by individual action in this age of informational asymmetric warfare. There was a perfect illustration last week in a small town in Scotland.

It began with a nine year-old girl who wanted to write a blog and raise money for charity. Her daily blog was about her school lunches. It featured a photograph and her assessment of the meal. Her charitable cause was also food related. For £7,000 she could build a kitchen in Malawi.

After her blog was featured in a local newspaper criticizing the school lunches, Martha Payne was summoned to the head teacher’s office and banned from taking photographs in the lunch hall. When she went home she wrote her goodbye blog entry. Her father phoned the local council and asked if the school had the power to do this. The council replied that yes it did, and had done so on the council’s instruction.

When the story appeared in the Daily Telegraph –Britain’s highest selling quality paper – it reported that Martha had raised “almost £2000” for charity. Just three hours later when this columnist checked the blog the figure was almost £9,000 and the first kitchen had been paid for.

Many of us who picked this up early then sent Argyll and Bute Council tweets demanding to know if it was true that they had shut down a nine year-old’s blog. Within seconds this was retweeted by bloggers with substantial media followings and by former students in countries including the US and Thailand. By now, talk of Martha’s “NeverSeconds” blog was trending on Twitter.

The statement from Argyll and Bute Council, when it came, was pompous and absurd. The council had acted to protect its employees. From a nine year-old? No-one else had ever criticized the quality of school lunches. That would make this school unique, globally. Council staff feared for their jobs. Why? The food is popular with every student but one. The council rejects unfair criticism of its staff. That’s why it runs schools? For the benefit of the staff?

By one pm the story was on Drudge – the American blog that exposed the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As one tweeter told the council “you are now idiots on a global scale”. During the course of BBC radio’s The World at One the council leader backed down. A new statement appeared on the council’s website declaring that “there is no place for censorship in Argyll and Bute”. The old statement was wiped from existence, as though it had never been.

By the end of the day Martha’s Just Giving page had raised £52,000 ($82,000) enough for seven kitchens. Her blog had more than four million page views and counter clicked higher at a rate faster than in seconds.

This all happened in the space of a few hours. While Martha sat in lessons at school, her cause was being championed by people who never heard of her or of Argyll and Bute before that day. A nine year-old girl sent her local political leaders running for the hills.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He has previously taught public relations and political communications at Cardiff and London Metropolitan Universities. He blogs on crisis and social media issues at

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