Internal vs External, Professional vs Personal

An interview with Richard Sambrook on the issues facing senior leaders in the public eye and their use of social media.

Early in my research I conducted an interview with Richard Sambrook, then Head of BBC World Service and BBC Global News, now Chief Content Officer at Edelman on how leaders use social media.

This was what some case study methodology refers to as an ‘elite interview’ (don’t tell him) whereby you interview a person with an over-arching perspective with a view to defining models and insights into how you might conduct the rest of your research into a particular area (Gillham, 2000, p. 63) (Richards, 1996).

I have consciously delayed examining the ideas we developed as I did not want my findings becoming outdated when everyone moved onto the next big thing in social media. Also the media is what it is and people move on. And indeed, the cohort of digital media leaders at Channel 4 that Prof. Heppell and I thought would be excellent leaders to study all moved on before we could start…

I am now in the detailed write-up stage of my research (among other things) and have been coding interviews. I thought the little intellectual journey through the transcript of the interview with Richard to a conceptual framework was worth a memo/blogpost.

Below is a Wordle graphic of Richard’s answers to my questions (I prefer to remove my questions when doing this, else you just get the image dominated by my verbal noddies – yeah?).

So, ‘people’ and ‘BBC’ show up a lot, hardly surprising considering the topic and the interviewee. If we ignore filler words (kind, get, quite) then it’s interesting to note ‘Internal’ is quite big…

…because when I coded the interview (an iterative process whereby I create a set of codes for reviewing my interviews which summarise phrases and sentences and take account of my interpretation of intent) and put it into Wordle, this is what came up:

The differences are pretty marked – and I will certainly be a lot more careful of using Wordle to attempt to highlight subtext in the future (although it may still have its place with certain kinds of prepared document, such as minutes or speeches).

Key differences were the prominence of the mention of ‘tools’ – and how the conversation spent more time discussing ‘external’ conversations, compared to ‘internal’. ‘Interaction’ with ‘followers’ was also an important theme.

I then highlighted quotations which I considered to be a fair representation of the key points he made.

Here is Richard on the differences between his two groups of followers, and presentation of self (Goffman, 1959) (Miller, 1995) (Hogan, 2010);

“One is between people who work in the BBC and people who are outside of the BBC. Whether they work in my division or not, I don’t think makes a lot of difference really. So it’s inside the BBC and outside the BBC. And then it’s how I present myself in terms of that kind of tension between the personal and the professional.”

Working at the BBC at the time I observed that Richard was particularly effective in his use of social media to attract followers from outside his division and reporting line. This increased his social capital as a leader (Burt, 1999), which meant he could call on favours from experts from outside his division more easily. This exchange often took place on a quid pro quo basis, so those who gave favours could expect favours (e.g. contacts, references, mentoring) from him in return.

He then went on to talk about the role of social media in establishing what leadership academics refer to as ‘authenticity’ (Jones & Goffee, 2007)

“… when I started, part of the interest in doing it was to try and play the personal elements, which was quite hard, but at least to get them in there so you are not a faceless suit and people know what I do in my spare time and get a sense of me as an individual. And that’s quite a healthy thing for staff in a big company or organization, to feel they have some sense of who their leaders are as individuals.”

As Richard developed a larger following on external social media tools, particularly twitter, maintaining an interesting and authentic conversation with his internal followers became more difficult:

“I’m under no illusions that most people who I don’t know come to me because of my BBC position and that’s what they want from me. Whereas when I started most of the people that followed me just because I knew them or were friends, and actually what they wanted was more of me. So that’s definitely shifted as the take up grows, as your following grows. And then in my kind of position, you get more restricted in what you can say publicly. So that’s the difference between public and internal BBC.”

If he tried to maintain a sense of the authentic Richard on sites visible externally, he felt did not come across well with his external followers, in a way that could possibly be damaging to the organisation:

 “…one of the reasons I’ve probably tailed off was just because I feel I’m being pushed back into just being a cipher for the BBC because if I try and be personal I get challenged as a BBC functionary.”

He became careful of the regular banter that one might share with friends or close colleagues:

“I’ll have to always be conscious in a public space. And I suspect that some people who simply don’t know me are quite disappointed that I get kind of one-liners and jokes from people I know well, as much as you get links to interesting things about the news or journalism.”

Having talked about leadership styles, self and authenticity we then looked at the specific leadership activities for which he used social media to extend his reach in scale and across time and space:

Encouraging cross pollination (Kelley, 2006) of ideas and intellectual diversity;

“So even when I was doing just an internal blog, a lot of what I used it for was to point to other sites and what’s happening outside the BBC. And part of its value for me was to try to drive something into what can be a very internal cautious culture and say, “Look wake up and look what’s happening here, what’s happening there?”

Defending the corporation;

“I mean you can obviously use it as kind of a corporate selling point. So I do think about the James Murdoch speech, it wasn’t very controversial or surprising, but I did make one or two institutional points from a BBC perspective because I happen to have a BBC perspective. You got to be a little bit careful about that. You got to make sure you’re not at odds with the BBC’s press line and all the rest of it. But you can do that, so you can use it to project a point of view to an extent. If you do that too much, it just becomes spam.”

Explaining ideas and concepts;

“You can use it to explain things, either again BBC things or things that are more personal to you.”

Asking questions and for assistance (it can be quite a big step for a leader who is supposed to have all the answers to ask for help – but “revealing a weakness can show others how they can help.” (Jones & Goffee, 2007) ).

“You can throw questions out, you can get people thinking, you can invite response, you can say you’re struggling with this issue…”

We also identified that other BBC leaders were using social media for appreciative inquiry, particularly the BBC’s instance of yammer (a microblogging tool that operates inside corporate firewalls).

All of which can be summed up in a 4 Box matrix (Boston Consulting Group, 1968):


Boston Consulting Group. (1968). BCG HISTORY: 1968. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from Boston Consulting Group:

Burt, R. (1999). The social capital of opinion leaders. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , 566 (The Social Diffusion of Ideas and Things), 37-54.

Gillham, B. (2000). Case Study Research Methods. London: Continuum.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.

Hogan, B. (2010). The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online. Bulletin of Science Technology Society , 377-386.

Jones, G., & Goffee, R. (2007). Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? Harvard Business School Press.

Kelley, T. (2006). The Ten Faces of Innovation. Random House.

Miller, H. (1995). The Presentation of Self in Electronic Life: Goffman on the Internet. Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space Conference. London: Goldsmiths’ College.

Richards, D. (1996). Elite Interviewing: Approaches and Pitfalls. Politics , 199–204.