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What #PieGate Tells Us About Social Media

by Shane Lees - Follow Shane on Twitter

Not since Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich have we seen such a fuss made over someone tucking into a savoury snack. Piegate has swept across social media, even making it into the national news and is a perfect story to tell us exactly how social media works and how narratives tell and establish themselves and evolve once in the public domain.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Piegate it's an ethical crisis over a Sutton United reserve goalkeeper eating a pie in the dugout whilst on camera during the Sutton - Arsenal game. A betting company had decided to place odds on whether or not he would eat a pie on camera during the game at 8-1 and, being aware of this, Wayne Shaw (Aka Captain Piegate) decided to play it up for the camera's and eat his pie, or pasty if you'll believe him. The FA and betting commission are now investigating whether or not this is a breach of ethics or more. The story took over social and national media and the story is one that every social media professional could learn from.

In The Beginning...

The stage was well set and the context established; plucky non-league football team takes on gargantuan, money rich, Champions League side. There were pre-match videos of the dressing rooms and the fans and the manager drinking a brew. It was clearly working-class football romanticism versus the bland, wealthy and soulless modern game. The initial reaction to the pie eating was much the same. People took to Twitter to comment that "This is what non-league is about!" and various other things about this guy being a legend and having great banter. A side was taken; this is classic football culture and it needs to be preserved. We had already seen the establishment of sides being taken, that, consciously or subconsciously, were deeply tied into identity and politics. It was an us-versus-them scenario and mostly everyone was backing Captain Piegate. Some did refute it though, saying it brought the game into disrepute or was embarrassing to Sutton. These were the few naysayers though and it seemed mostly just to be contrarian or to get a reaction.


Ah. So it turns out that this moment of working-class, pure football culture may have been itself corrupted by money and personal gain. A bookie had put odds on Captain Piegate to do it and he had gleefully done so, completely aware of the bet. He had not bet money on it himself or gained personally, but he knew people who had done so. Suddenly it's all a bit questionable. Social media reacts again, first with initial shock and ridicule but then it stabilises and what we see is a return to the original status quo. The sides are re-established; working class v elitism. Those who commended Shaw before stuck by their man, loathe to change sides. "It's all just a bit of banter, don't take it so seriously." People cried. "Day by day football is losing its heart and its sense of humour" said a far more serious Gary Lineker. Others railed against Wayne Shaw for bringing the game into disrepute, for ruining the achievements of Sutton with his own selfish desire for fame and for potentially illicit activities. The sides entrenched themselves completely. Identity and politics took something of a side line now; it was now about the story itself - the reaction was to the reaction, the positions now simply a continuation of the previous positions. The embers burned and they simply needed to be occasionally fanned to keep the sides enflamed.

The Moral of Piegate

Facts don't matter. The situation, truth or even those involved don't really matter. Nobody was really picking this apart legally, otherwise they'd have seen that the original bookies had the burden of responsibility for allowing a bet on something that had nothing to do with chance, fortune or turns of events. They created a bet on a matter of choice and to make either choice, once aware of the bet, meant Shaw was influencing the bet. Shall we blame the cameraman and live editor as well? Surely they were aware of the bet, why else show it? All of this goes to the side, just like the fact that Wayne Shaw was a loyal and committed member of the Sutton team and his character and good standing was completely ignored by the naysayers.

What mattered was the identity and position of the people reacting to it and perpetuating that reaction. In building a social media campaign engagement is key and the life blood of its success. In a divisive, partisan world, one filled with identity politics and polarisation, the key to engagement is to pick a side. Going further than that is to create one, by creating the story itself.

Wayne Shaw probably has no idea, but everyone in the social media profession should analyse this case. It's a great example of how engaging identity, politics and using a partisan campaign, one which prompts people to take a side based on their own identity, is key to success and engagement. Forget about your product, your service, even your company. Think about the people you're marketing this to; who are they, what do they want, what do they feel. That is what the campaign has to be based around. There's a lot being said about companies taking political positions, especially in the Trump world, in order to engage with the politically active consumers, but this shows that it's more than just politics that's at the heart of marketing; it's identity.

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