The Social Media Insider Presents: This Week in Twitter Censorship, Starring ESPN, the NFL and the United States Marines

It's been quite a week in the wonderful world of TwitterCensorship and it's only Wednesday. To recap:

  1. ESPN issues restrictive social media guidelines to its staff, and it leaks, via Twitter.
  2. The NFL is in the process of developing a social media policy, which would limit social media usage on game days, while some teams were hinting at not letting their players use Twitter at all. Meanwhile, San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie was fined $2500 for a tweet in which he complained about the food at training camp. (Cromartie has now protected his tweets.)
  3. The U.S. Marines have taken all social media sites off of their networks, saying (the caps are theirs):


I'm cool with the Marines on this one. Who would want a national security incident to flare up over the ill-advised posting of a picture to MySpace?

As for the rest of you, lighten up, and let me tell you why we are at a critical juncture in the evolution of social networking and how you can be smart about it: these platforms are coming into such common usage that it's almost equivalent to when there was critical mass for use of the telephone. We are all on a learning curve here trying to figure out what's right and wrong to share, so let your employees be part of the learning curve rather than cutting it off before it even starts.

If you read ESPN's social media guidelines, many of them are so mind-blowingly obvious they really belong under corporate policy, rather than social media policy. There's no need to restate them just for this context, as though social media were some foreign country where a different language is being spoken: I speak specifically of:

1.      Assume at all times you are representing ESPN.

2.      If you wouldn't say it on the air or write it in your column, don't tweet it.

3.      Exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for your colleagues, business associates and our fans.

4.      Confidential or proprietary company information or similar information of third parties who have shared such information with ESPN, should not be shared.

Can you say, "Duh?" Aren't these rules already in the corporate handbook somewhere?

The sharp learning curve in social media explains why ESPN and the NFL look like they're governing social media via restrictions - they're scared. But this is actually the time to let loose just a little and put a modicum of trust into the secret sauce that makes your employees representatives of your brand. That doesn't mean that companies shouldn't release guidelines to their employees - just that they should be less draconian in the early offing, and only put in harsher restrictions if there are signs that the looser restrictions aren't working - and then mete out punishment to those who have proven that maybe they shouldn't have such a close relationship with a keyboard. Is this a one-size-fits-all exercise? No. To compare and contrast ESPN and the NFL, the ESPN people are in the communications business; NFL players are not. That doesn't mean that ESPN people should be free to tweet, and NFL players should not, but that social media training should be adapted accordingly, just as media training always has been for people in the public eye.

Investing in social media education, rather than issuing a 12-step plan on how to make your employees so scared of social networking that they won't even look at Facebook, isn't the right step. This is what ESPN essentially did (and yes, there are 12 guidelines - it would take 11.3 tweets just to pump them all out on Twitter).

Based on the statement ESPN has issued since Ric Bucher let word slip on Twitter last night that "the hammer just came down," it seems like some of the people at the network actually get it. But rather than let cooler heads prevail, the network handed off the duty of drafting the so-called guidelines to Stalin's next of kin, who infamously declared: "The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content." As any social media person can tell you, part of the power of social nets is that they humanize - and humanizing brands makes brands stronger. I found this rather poignant post in Bucher's tweetstream while writing the column:

"Rolled into Big Sur at sunset and Iz came on the radio singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' Sometimes the universe hits the perfect chord."

ESPN, you gotta problem with that? According to your social media guidelines, you do.
6 comments about "The Social Media Insider Presents: This Week in Twitter Censorship, Starring ESPN, the NFL and the United States Marines".
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  1. Tom Watson from Moore Industrial, August 5, 2009 at 3:59 p.m.

    I agree with the Marines' position as well. Regards to the rest, understand their position - I've observed the OCD/ADD-like behavior displayed by some Twitter users. I think an increasing number of organizations will be making policy decisions of this kind. Certainly these policy decisions will contribute to Twitter's potential demise. Regardless, I maintain that Twitter is unsustainable as it exists today anyway, and will not stand the test of time - both from a monetizing standpoint and usefulness to the wider world beyond the early adopters that are current primary users. In any case, I won't miss it.

  2. Mark Bair from HighBeam Marketing, August 5, 2009 at 5 p.m.

    The key is using Twitter to humanize the brand in a way that's consistent with the brand's character to foster a stronger connection with the audience. What that means is that the employees who rep the brand on Twitter or any other social media need to be cognizant of their brand and ensure that what they say won't denigrate the brand or take it in a confusing direction.

  3. Frank Dobner from The Startup Source, August 5, 2009 at 5:25 p.m.

    I really agree with this opinion in its most universal application. Allow and insist that all members of an organization adhere to the organizational policies about what should and should not be talked about, in what manner, and when or where. It doesn't matter whether it is e-mail, phone usage, megaphone, or in a public elevator. Most members will get it, and those that don't - let Darwin sort them out.

    I think it is wrong to treat people as stupid as their weakest member. Good article.

  4. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, August 5, 2009 at 9:06 p.m.

    Thanks Frank. I think you said it better than I did...and thanks everyone for your comments. So much of this is no-brainer stuff that doesn't need to be codified into yet another corporate policy.


  5. Brian Posnanski from TrafficPRM, August 6, 2009 at 11:30 p.m.

    "As any social media person can tell you, part of the power of social nets is that they humanize - and humanizing brands makes brands stronger."

    Without a doubt, this is the finest summation I've yet seen about why social media matters for brands. It knocked me over the head and should be shouted from the rooftops. Thanks for this little gem.

  6. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, August 9, 2009 at 4:24 p.m.

    I'm sorry to be the voice of dissent here, but I'm with Mark Bair; let's have a little sympathy and appreciation for ESPN's actions.

    We all know that it's people, not brands, who engage with social media, but that the behavior of those people forms part and parcel of the brand identity. Brand guidelines -- even 12 of them -- are in my experience a great way to allow people to communicate freely while remembering that everything they say has implications.

    The fact that they may be repeating concepts that are obvious doesn't mean that they don't bear repeating. I agreed with all four of the guidelines you repeated here. Why attack ESPN for explicitly stating that you shouldn't tweet anything you wouldn't write down? How is that Draconian?

    If they had said, "Every tweet must be approved by the Comms department prior to publishing," ok, I'd get it. But what they're doing here seems like good common sense.

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