When I first saw the two stories I linked to in yesterday’s post regarding ESPN’s social media smackdown, I was admittedly pretty shocked. The World Wide Leader decided to place some serious stipulations on their talent’s presence in the social media world. No platform was excluded: Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, blogs and any other social media outlet there is, are now all subject to ESPN’s Gestapo-like smackdown on their on-air personalities.
It’s unclear to me why ESPN would do something like this, but I’ll explore a couple different possibilities and then take a look at what this might mean for the rest of the industry in the social media world.
So what motivations does ESPN have for this and why is it a bad move on their part?
-ESPN seems to be worried about damaging things that its employees could say, either about their co-workers or about the company. The statement reeks of lawyers and jurisprudence. ESPN is most likely paranoid about a potential P.R. nightmare if Bill Simmons tweets a sarcastic comment about Rick Reilly, or if another personality is unhappy with an editorial decision and decides to write a blog post about it. The Leader, presumably, wants to avoid the situation entirely.
-Like any other “brand,” ESPN wants to keep its message consistent. That means that the company wants its goals and ideals to remain on point, from the leadership at the top down to its employees. This becomes very hard to do when your employees are off tweeting and blogging about a million different things, generally still related to the company’s focus, but not in the same way in which the company would like. For instance, if Tony Kornheiser tweets about a photo shoot with Danica Patrick, while this still relates to sports, it’s not exactly the message ESPN wants to be sending.
-ESPN referenced several times in its memo that the purpose of its employees using the social space should be to constantly promote and enhance ESPN. That tells me that the network is worried its parts could potentially become bigger than the whole. It seems they are worried that a Bill Simmons or Kenny Mayne could become so big in the social space, whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook or a blog, that they are no longer driving people to ESPN, but instead becoming their own entity.
– Because so many athletes now use social media, I think ESPN is worried about the types of interactions its personalities might have with these athletes. The ethical codes of the online world are hazy at best, and people often don’t think before they throw something in a blog post or tweet (which is stupid, because an online trail is easier to track than an offhand remark made on the street). Regardless, there could be some athlete-analyst conversations online that ESPN might not wants its employees to engage in, for whatever reason.
So what’s my problem with ESPN’s stance? A few points:
– The whole point of social media is to engage. For brands, social media engages consumers at the micro-level, developing a sense of brand loyalty and inter-connectedness that traditional means of advertising can only dream of (again, see: Buddy Media, the experts on this new form of targeted advertising). When ESPN’s personalities blog, tweet, message, etc., fans are able to interact with them in a way that is not available through television or writing. So why in the world would ESPN try to limit this? Though I mentioned they might fear their personalities grow bigger than or separate themselves from the ESPN brand, I don’t actually believe that. People know the talent works for ESPN. By engaging with them, they only grow closer to the network, even if it’s indirectly. If Person A likes what Scott Van Pelt is tweeting, and maybe gets a message from him, you better believe they’ll be tuning in to watch Van Pelt on Sportscenter. The same goes for writers and radio hosts. Engage the audience in their living room, and you’ll earn a permanent seat at their dinner table.
– By limiting the content that its personalities can use in the social space, ESPN loses a major edge in the race to deliver instant news. As Deadspin notes, people use Twitter to find out information when it’s happening, rather than waiting for an editor to parse through it. The Leader could fall victim to its own cautiousness if it keeps getting beat to scoops by reporters from other outlets tweeting.Plus, reading about the behind-the-scenes aspect of reporting is really appealing to me and many others, and makes following these personalities worthwhile.
As far as what this means for the rest of media depends on what they think of ESPN’s crackdown. If other outlets think this makes sense, Twitter might start to lose some of its luster. But I think media outlets currently make good use of Twitter, and reporters enjoy the new level of communication they have with their audience.
But all it takes is one bad apple to spoil the bunch (I think that’s the expression). Inevitably, a situation will arise that forces all media outlets to evaluate their use of social media. At that point, media outlets will either continue engaging its audience in the social realm or they’ll move back offline.
If they’re smart, they’ll choose the former.