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In response to continued controversy over social media remarks made by its on-air hosts, ESPN has instituted a controversial new social media policy. The goal of the policy, plain and simple, is to stop its hosts from turning ESPN into an overly politicized company. Accordingly, ESPN has declared that any tweets or other social media updates should be clearly sports-related. Moreover, ESPN has stated that any social media content should be free of any controversial issues that would reflect poorly on ESPN as a media company. So what can your business learn from ESPN’s new social media guidelines?
Lesson #1: Companies need to be comfortable with their employees having a voice
The root of the ESPN controversy was that one of its up-and-coming star talents, Jemele Hill, began injecting herself into the controversy over the national anthem protests. Hill did more than just report on the protests or offer her opinion on whether these protests were correct – she actively encouraged her fans and followers to boycott advertisers and sponsors who supported any sports team (such as the Dallas Cowboys) that would not allow their players to protest during the national anthem.
Moreover, that came on top of Hill’s earlier tweets referring to President Trump as a “white supremacist.” As the national anthem protests became a polarizing issue nationwide involving the White House, Hill’s social media activity took on a much more prominent role. Clearly, by any benchmark, Hill had simply gone too far.
The problem is that, in today’s digital world, you simply can’t declare that all social media activity is off limits. And that’s especially true in the world of sports media, where employees are expected to have a voice. Part of the reason why people still watch ESPN these days is for the commentary and analysis from people with “hot takes” on a situation.
However, that doesn’t meant that you can’t put clear guideposts out there about what type of commentary is acceptable. In ESPN’s case, the company drew the line on the difference between sports commentary and commentary that was clearly political.
Lesson #2: Companies need to establish the rules of the road that apply to all employees
One mistake that ESPN made was failing to establish clear guidelines up front of what was permissible and what was not. It trusted its employees – and especially its on-air talent – to make the right choice. In today’s highly politicized national news cycle, that ultimately was a recipe for disaster.
The new social media guidelines clearly point out that all employees must confer with senior editors and producers before posting any controversial comment. And they made clear that any comment made via social media should not be designed to “embroil the company in unwanted controversy.” These guidelines apply to everyone – not just the people on the bottom or the people at the top of the corporate ladder.
While many of the steps are simply common sense – such as imploring all employees to break any news first on ESPN social media accounts, and not on their own personal accounts – it’s easy to see how the tightening of the social media policy could be viewed as an attempt to self-censor. Surely, Jemele Hill – who was publicly suspended for two weeks as a result of her tweets – would suggest as much. Wasn’t ESPN trying to silence her?
However, in all fairness to ESPN, the company has been down this road before and has acted in a similar manner when it suspended announcer Curt Schilling for also acting inappropriately via social media. The key here is to apply a rule evenly and fairly, regardless of political viewpoint.
Lesson #3: Social media needs to support – not detract from – broader business goals
ESPN was not taking sides in the debate over whether or not Jemele Hill acted appropriately – it was simply trying to protect its underlying business model. At a time when ESPN subscriber growth is down markedly over the past three years and cable TV subscribers are cutting the cord to cable (and hence to ESPN), the sports TV network simply couldn’t afford to take any chances by alienating fans. Not to mention that ESPN has a multi-billion-dollar deal to televise NFL games!
Viewed from this perspective, it’s easy to see why ESPN acted the way it did. It simply couldn’t afford to have a voice within the company potentially jeopardizing its external business relationships – especially when top management was probably fielding phone calls on a daily basis from sponsors and advertisers who were wondering what the heck was going on there.
For ESPN, it wasn’t personal, it was just business. And that might just be the biggest lesson out there – yes, social media is wonderful for building awareness and creating fan engagement – but when it no longer functions the way it’s supposed to, that’s when you need to make sure your social media policy continues to reflect who you are as a company.