UK: Embrace Your Inner Tweeters

Last Updated: 3 January 2012
Article by Nick Armstrong

Working with social media

How can organisations in the public eye deal with individuals inside the organisation expressing themselves on Twitter or Facebook?

The question has become an acute one in recent times, as the use of those two media has exploded. According to Twitter itself, in the year from August 2010 to August 2011, the number of tweets per day rose from 65 million to over 200 million. Social networking media seem to be at the heart of many crucial news stories: recent social unrest in the UK, anti-government movements in the Middle East, and the furore about so-called 'super-injunctions' all featured a prominent role for Twitter or Facebook.

The world of sport, in particular, provides an interesting means to study this question in light of the often frenzied media and public scrutiny in which its participants find themselves.

2010 was the year when sporting organisations and sports people started to realise the potential damage a 140 character tweet could cause and tried to come to terms with the new social media. There were some high-profile growing pains. A number of cricketers were fined during the summer of 2010: for example, sacked England under-19 captain Azeem Rafiq was fined and suspended for using the f-word, the c-word and the w-word in a tweet about the ECB's elite player development manager.

There can be other consequences to ill-judged tweets. Later in 2010, Australian Olympic swimmer Stephanie Rice was dropped by her sponsor Jaguar (and had to hand back the car) after tweeting an insult about defeated opponents which was characterised as homophobic ("suck on that, faggots").

The reaction to instances like these was that communications professionals handling high-profile outfits such as football clubs, national teams etc tended to impose a ban on social media use, especially at key times such as during an international tournament. This approach carried through to the summer of 2011, when it was reported that the All Blacks imposed a social media blackout for the squad during the recent World Cup in New Zealand.

However, is this "all or nothing" approach the right one?

Used appropriately, these media can allow fans to get closer to the individuals and to the organisation itself, countering the polarising effect of a "press conference" culture plus the increasing remoteness of highly-paid sports people constantly ringed by security officials.

Sophisticated use of these media is favoured, for example, by The FA. Back in 2010, at the time of the World Cup in South Africa (the first "Twitter World Cup"), there was concern on the part of the team management and a desire to make sure that the only communication with the outside world was via the daily organised press conferences. It is likely that now and going forward, they will be increasingly willing to embrace the new media as part of the overall media strategy. On the FA's website one sees an example of a Twitter chat with Darren Bent (illustrative itself of tweeting 'coming of age', having been involved in a public transfer spat on Twitter in 2009) .

The sensible approach we believe is to:

  1. avoid tweets which express any sort of personal opinion or which use controversial or obscene language; and
  2. encourage tweets that are in the nature of diary extracts, expressing what the individual is feeling or what they are doing at that moment. The best tweets would appear to be those which conform to the original vision of cofounder and executive chairman of Twitter Jack Dorsey: he said that the word "Twitter" was "just perfect:...a short burst of inconsequential information".

This approach is echoed in the Guidelines which have been published by the International Olympic Committee on "Social Media, Blogging and Internet" for participants and other accredited persons at the London 2012 Games. Postings, blogs and tweets are grouped together and the initial tone is encouraging: athletes and other accredited persons are encouraged to take part in "social media" in relation to their experiences and time at the event.

The IOC Guidelines specify that any such postings, blogs or tweets "must be in a first-person diary-type format" and they must not amount to reports on the competition or comments on the activities of other participants or accredited individuals. There is a ban on disclosing information which is confidential or private and on any posting, blog or tweet which fails to "conform to the Olympic spirit" . In particular, there must be no "vulgar or obscene words or images" .

The Guidelines impose a slightly tighter regime to the residential area of the Olympic village: again postings must be in "first-person diary-type format". Photos can be posted but explicit permission is required from any other persons appearing in the photo. Video taken within the residential area is not allowed to be uploaded to websites or social media platforms. There is an additional bar on using the Olympic symbol on blogs or tweets, and on promoting brands products or services in any posting, blog or tweet or other social media platform or website. This last part could be problematic, particularly for sponsors seeking to engage with and activate their athlete partnerships in digital media during the Games through athlete comments and contributions.

In our view, any organisation (especially those which are particularly subject to media and public scrutiny) would be well advised to develop their own policy and training programme about use of social media incorporated in its staff handbook, implementing the 'best practice' as described above.

There is reason to think that social media use has truly come of age in 2011, and organisations would be well advised to seek to capitalise on its advantages whilst avoiding the pitfalls which can lead to almost instantaneous damage. In the modern world of social media, remember there is in effect no such thing as "delete".

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Nick Armstrong
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