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Tweeting from the Sidelines: Social Media Best Practices for Professional Athletes

The advent of social media has changed the world of communication, as the number of channels and methods to communicate instantly and connect with audiences has increased at a rapid rate.  While communication is among our most personal and most powerful weapons, the need to evolve how we communicate in an increasingly digital world has never been greater.

Professional sports is one area that has been greatly affected by the emergence of social media.  Athletes’ use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites has changed how they communicate with the world, allowing them to give fans and the broader public an unfiltered look into their lives: personal updates about daily life, professional content about work, and messages promoting their sponsor’s products.  Social media allows fans to feel like they have a closer connection and chance to interact with their athletic idols, and has allowed athletes the opportunity to bypass media gatekeepers to go straight to fans.

However, social media use can be a double-edged sword in the sports industry.  In general, professional athletes do not receive proper training or education on how to use social media, in contrast to the media training they do receive in how to address traditional media. These tools play a very important role in marketing and communication today, as the ability to interact with fans is a major reason why athletes choose to express themselves on social media networks.  As a result of their activity, many athletes have caused personal or professional harm through their misuse of social media.

Three Olympic athletes have been banned from the 2012 Summer Olympic games due to remarks they made on their personal Twitter accounts.  Greek athletic officials expelled Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou after posting racist joke on her Twitter account.  Her tweet, mentioning fellow African Olympians, referenced reports of mosquitos carrying the West Nile virus in Greece.  She immediately started to receive negative responses to her post.  Though Papachristou issued an apology and showed remorse for her lack of tact, she was not reinstated into the Olympics.

Just a few days later, the Swiss Olympic Committee banned soccer player Michel Morganella after an offensive tweet following Switzerland’s loss to South Korea.  Morganella’s tweet, translated from French, described South Koreans as “retards” and said he wanted to beat up South Koreans and that they should “burn.”  Morganella, who received a negative response because of the tweet, also retracted his statement and issued an apology to no avail.  He was not reinstated into the Olympics.

And most recently, Welsh soccer player Daniel Thomas has been suspended for sending a homophobic tweet coming from his personal twitter account to a fellow Olympian. The account has since been deleted and internal investigation is ongoing about the incident.

Athletes, along with anyone who is new to social media, must know how to use social media responsibly. Though social media use comes with risks, especially for high-profile users like athletes, it does not meant that they should not use it – it just means that athletes should be educated in how to use social media.  Just as athletes are extensively trained on traditional media etiquette, they should also receive or at least have access to social media best practices.  Based on my research and interest in the subject, I’ve composed my own list of social media best practices for professional athletes.

Be smart and think before you post
Remember that you have a large audience and once you put something out on the Internet, it is never fully erased. Refrain from posting when highly emotional or in the heat of the moment. Wait at least 10 minutes before posting when upset.

Be 100% genuine, but not 100% candid
Be genuine but cautious and aware of what you are saying.  Refrain from being too glib, especially about controversial topics.

Don’t over share
Keep in mind how much you share, and monitor your content when sharing personal things.  Assume that everything you write will be viewed by a variety of people – children, coaches, grandmothers, teams, reporters, team owners, etc.

Remember who you represent
Don’t forget the variety of audiences you represent – an athlete’s team/league/sponsor is an employer and should be respected as one.

Don’t get baited into fights over the Internet
Refrain from starting or engaging in an argument on social media channels, as millions of eyes could be watching.

Accept responsibility
Own up to your mistakes and don’t pass the blame, it only makes bad situations worse.  Apologize then take the necessary steps to rectify the situation.

Be educated on the medium
Know the medium you’re posting on before you post.  Understand how it works and how posting can potentially affect you.

Remember your audience
Remember whom your audience is when posting, especially if commenting on more complicated or controversial topics.

Refrain from profanity, R-rated subjects, and politically/highly charged issues
As a general rule of thumb, stay away from being too candid on controversial topics.  Voice your opinion but be cautious of how you say it.  Your audience cannot feel or see your mood through reading text.

Understand the consequences
Understand what the consequences are for an inappropriate post and be ready to accept the repercussions, if any.

Best practices would not limit or hinder athletes from speaking their mind; instead, they would educate athletes on why it is important to understand how to use social media and how proper or improper use of social media can affect their reputations either positively or negatively.

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