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Social media gives us unprecedented opportunities to promote our profession and spread evidence-based advice. Unfortunately, it gives the same opportunities to people who want to spread misinformation.

There’s no doubt the media loves covering food and nutrition, but what happens when you see something you believe to be controversial on a public platform (tv, radio, newspaper article, social media) that you don’t agree with? Even more concerning, perhaps it has come from a fellow registered dietitian!

Your instinct, from years of dietetic training says “this is wrong” and “where’s the science and evidence base behind it?” You wonder how a fellow professional could have been so out of step with current evidence and thinking. You then inevitably see a barrage of unqualified, unregistered people quickly wade in to the argument.

Keen to set the record straight, and wondering what we (as your professional body) are doing about it, you may begin to respond with your opinion and tag us in asking, “Have you seen this @BDA_Dietitians, what are you doing about it?”

Here, our Communications team have written about our internal issue management process.

The BDA’s approach

We almost certainly have seen it. We’ve probably been monitoring it since it first aired or was posted. But we may not have responded/issued a statement publicly – and that’s a very deliberate choice.

Why?

We do sometimes respond directly to questions or criticisms on social media, particularly when they come from our members. We also put out statements on issues or matters of policy. But sometimes it can appear that we’re not doing anything. There are a number of reasons why that might be, and they do involve a great deal of thought.

Firstly, a lot of criticism and negativity on social media is 'trollish' behaviour, intended to provoke a knee-jerk response, rather than a constructive discussion. We try not to engage with this as it is rarely productive, and it wouldn’t be useful or appropriate for us to participate in tit-for-tat replies.

Secondly, we always try to avoid the “Streisand effect”, whereby our involvement on social media actually just draws further attention to the issue, without much hope of improving it, instead just adding fuel to the fire.

Thirdly, if it is a media or policy issue, the best means of making change or progress is usually not via social media. But we will make contact with individuals offline, seek meetings or write letters to take things forward. Being critical online in these instances can make the BDA seem unprofessional.

When dietitians make mistakes

When it comes to dietitians sharing controversial statements or views, it can be even trickier. Even if we disagree with the statement or position, we can’t and won’t call out an individual registered dietitian and BDA member publicly as this would usually be damaging, not just to the individual, but to the wider profession.  

We are of course responsible for anything we say or that a dietitian says on our behalf, and we strive to support dietitians to practice in an evidence-based and effective manner. If we make a mistake, our approach should be to admit it and seek to correct the issue.

However, if the dietitian isn’t speaking on behalf of the BDA as a trained media spokesperson, but instead speaking of their own freewill, it isn’t the BDA’s role to police a dietitian’s practice. We are not the registrant body – the HCPC performs this role.

In addition, we provide a service to members who are reported to the HCPC. As part of BDA membership each of our almost 10,000 members are able to access expert legal representation in the event of an HCPC hearing. Had we publicly denounced a member online this would present a conflict of interest from a legal point of view.

Over the past 12 months, controversial statements and advice have occurred on a number of occasions, and we’ve watched and listened to you, our members, across social platforms becoming frustrated by our perceived ‘lack of action’. The fact is, our internal social media, media, external and professional colleagues frequently assess what we can do as your professional body and trade union, and often the answer is, very little publicly.

We haven’t always got this right, but it can be a difficult balancing act

The BDA’s process

Alongside giving any appropriate public or direct responses, these are some of the things we may be doing behind the scenes when we spot that a member is involved in public controversy:

  • Contacting the member to make them aware of the problem, and understand their perspective on the issue
  • Contacting other members who are experts in the topic area to try and publicly provide the current thinking behind evidence on the topic
  • Contacting any online personalities with strong followings who are negatively attacking the profession to provide them with the facts – this may or may not include commenting on social media
  • Contacting any media outlets, editors or journalists involved to provide the facts – aiming to protect the profession
  • Contacting any partner organisations involved to provide the facts as we understand them and understand their perspective
  • Considering whether there is a need for a change to policy, practice or communication about the issue
  • Considering whether it is appropriate to report the issue or behaviour to a regulatory body

Our aim is to keep social media positive and professional, read an article from our Head of Education and Professional Development about keeping it professional online.