Simplifying the Social Media Discussion

It is easy to get lost in social media guidelines and policies.  Every organization has their own informed (and sometimes uninformed) views and ideas for how its employees and members should, could, or must engage with social media. But there is no standard practice and no legal regulation. Organizations are left to determine these guidelines or policies (or practices, or rules, or regulations, or tips, etc) by themselves!

Actually, any sort of social media directive from an organization should be tailored to best suit that organization.  Simply, there should be no standard because every organization is different and has different values. So how can an organization know how to engage with social media?

We are occasionally asked by organizations to provide them with a “social media policy template” that can be used within their organization. Such a template does not and should not exist.  An organization’s social media engagement (much like its communications plan and strategic plan) should be informed by that organization’s mission, vision, goals, and values.  There is no cookie-cutter solution.  Further, and more specifically, social media engagement is dependent on an organization’s resources, manpower, size, services provided to members, age and number of employees, funding, membership composition, and countless other constraints, limitations, and opportunities.

For example, each of the four major professional sports leagues (the MLB, NHL, NFL, and NBA) now has a social media policy and, naturally, they are all different. One item the leagues agree on is that there should be a ‘blackout’ period for athletes – a length of time before and after games in which athletes may not use Twitter or Facebook to post public comments.

Blackout policy before game time:

  • NHL – 120 minutes
  • NFL – 90 minutes
  • NBA – 45 minutes
  • MLB – 30 minutes

Presumably, each league considered why it needed a blackout policy and discussed an appropriate time length based on a number of factors. One reason why a league would implement a blackout period could be because it did not want athletes giving away confidential information (such as injuries or lineup status) that may influence betting on the outcome of the game. Another reason could be to prevent opponents from trash-talking each other so close to game time. The blackout length differences could be based on pregame warm-ups, athlete usage rate, or pressure from media partners.

Do amateur sports organizations need a social media blackout time period before matches or games?   Maybe and maybe not.  NSOs, PSOs, Major Games organizers, and other organizations would all have different and viable reasons for instituting any sort of social media restriction or recommending any social media usage guidelines.

Let’s try to simplify the discussion.

Organizations engage with social media in two ways.  First, organizations proactively use social media to interact with members, fans, and others for purposes that include distributing service or selling goods, attracting new members and fans, and relaying news and information. Second, organizations react to the use of social media by athletes, members, and other stakeholders who represent or are a part of that organization.  For example, in the proactive case, an organization may tweet results from an international tournament.  In the reactive case, an organization could be tasked with disciplining an athlete who tweeted that a biased referee caused his team to lose a match.

Some organizations may find they are engaging with social media more often in proactive ways (and seeing benefits and opportunities) – while other organizations may find themselves more frequently reacting to social media use by members and athletes (and these organizations would therefore more frequently see the drawbacks and risks of social media use).

Once an organization can determine which type of social media engagement is occurring more frequently, it can begin to plan, grasp, and (ideally) control social media for its own benefit.

Here is what we recommend for organizations:

Proactive:

  • the strategic plan should include organizational objectives and social media should be among the options available for achieving those organizational objectives
  • Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and flickr (or another photosharing website) should be the main social media used in the attempt to achieve an organizational objective
  • a dedicated staff member should be assigned to manage all social media output
  • the dedicated staff member should be familiar with legal issues like defamation and privacy
  • the dedicated staff member should have minor discretionary authority (related to type and content of shared posts and engagement)
  • an internal social media policy should be created for and with this staff member – outlining basic social media etiquette (e.g., no swearing, no controversial posts, etc) and any other internal social media directives

Reactive:

  • social media should be referenced in the Code of Conduct(s) and athlete agreements – highlighting that improper behaviour on social media is still improper behaviour and is therefore subject to the disciplinary sections of the applicable policies
  • find out how coaches and athletes are engaging with social media (i.e., if they are communicating with each other, which medium are they using, are parents a part of this communication, etc)
  • distribute an educational tip sheet of guidelines for coaches
  • each coach in the organization should be empowered to develop his or her own personal social media guidelines (written or unwritten) with the assistance of the tip sheet and/or a training seminar
  • distribute an educational tip sheet of guidelines for athletes

The Sport Law & Strategy group has helped organizations engage with social media.  In terms of reactive social media developments, we have given presentations at AGMs and sport summits and we are educating organizations about the benefits and risks of social media.  Guidelines for coaches have been created and distributed and we recently developed a brief ‘guidebook’ for athletes on behalf of AthletesCAN. The guidebook (English, French) was available as a handout for athletes at their annual Athletes Forum in September 2011.  We can also help on the proactive side; assisting organizations with updating their strategic and/or communications plan and developing an internal social media use policy that is consistent with the organization’s values.

Altogether, though it is easy to get lost in the many options and ideas available for social media engagement, navigating the confusion can be quite straightforward with the proper insight and organizational management. We look forward to continuing to assist organizations simplify the social media discussion.

Kevin Lawrie
krl@sportlaw.ca

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