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ESPN take no prisoners with social media

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This week’s post discusses about the legal limits of social media to an organisation. As we all know, social media is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It can be your best ally, but also a genuine threat to your business if people (such as employees) decide to push the boundaries and get into legal trouble. Many organisations today leverage social media as a tool for marketing and means for collaboration between employees and customers. Almost every big company has a Facebook or Twitter page.

Blogs and Wikis are such examples of social media platforms available for them to engage in collaborative work and build their digital brand. It is a great marketing tool to reach out to a larger audience but things can go pear-shaped pretty quick if no proper measures (e.g. having a proper social media policy) are put in place to keep an organisation’s social networking endeavor in-check.

One major risk that comes with engaging in social media is that social media sites can distort the boundaries of working and personal lives of employees. This means that a disgruntled employee can go to Facebook ranting about his version of “a bad day at the office” but the consequences of his action could cause legal implications both to him and his employers

Social Media Policy (SMP)

According to Dundas Lawyers:

Social Media Policy (SMP) is a document that suppliments a contract of employment to be legally enforceable by an organisation on its employees. The aim of an SMP is to clearly communicate what is acceptable conduct on Social Networking Sites by an organisations employees and contractors and what conduct is unacceptable and would make an employee liable to dismissal. An SMP is distinct from an organisations Social Media Strategy (SMS) which is a high level document that communicates how an organisation plans to participate in social media.

So what can a SMP protect the company both internally and externally against?

  • Conduct of employees that an employer may be vicariously liable for
  • Copyright breaches
  • Trademark
  • Confidentiality breaches
  • Privacy breaches
  • Defamation
  • Discrimination claims

and the list goes on…

ESPN was one of the first sports media companies to engage social media issued an official policy for social networking that controlled and regulated what the employees (e.g. anyone in the public eye, such as anchors, analysts, reporters, columnists, etc.) is allowed to discuss on their personal blogs and Twitter accounts. The details of ESPN’s SMP was deemed “short sighted” and“draconian” by sports bloggers but the company felt it was absolutely necessary to constantly maintain good rapports with their audience. And unsurprisingly, one of the key points in the policy was: “Assume at all times you are representing ESPN”.

Here’s part of an interview with ESPN’s editor in chief, Rob King:

SBD: Let me ask that another way. What’s out there [on Twitter] that made you raise an eyebrow

King: I can think of cases in which folks have re-tweeted breaking news that turned out not to be true. Some day somebody’s going to get sued somewhere for re-tweeting something that is false. That’s part of a great IQ test that represents the introduction to social media. That’s just from a journalistic perspective, one that has to be taught and managed very carefully. I don’t know which media company is going to run into it. But some day, somebody’s probably going to find themselves in a court of law. That was in no way a line of thought that drove this conversation. But if you’re asking me, personally, sometimes I see folks re-tweeting stuff that is essentially breaking news without really a sense of the sourcing. It runs counter to the journalistic training that folks ingrained in me.

and he went on:

SBD: Explain ESPN’s ban on personal Web sites. Does that mean that someone like Jeremy Schapp can’t operate a Web site?

King: I hate the word ‘ban.’ The guideline on the personal Web site is that they should not be representing sports content at all. If Jeremy Schapp wants to have a Web site that has no sports content on it whatsoever, I think that’s fine. We felt like our forward-facing talent’s relationship with the audience happens through ESPN media. We wanted to reiterate that’s the relationship we expect as long as people are part of the company.

than someone decides to play by his own rules…

Bill Simmons, an ESPN writer, learned the hard way that there are consequences for what you write on Twitter. He broke those rules established by ESPN and the proper use of social media. The consequence? A suspension from Twitter for 2 weeks! So what was he guilty of?

Final thoughts

While it is always difficult to prevent a social media disaster from happening as with the Bill Simmons case, having a through social media policy will certainly have its part to play in mitigating the situation. The penalty that Bill Simmons paid will certainly signal ESPN’s intent of taking no prisoners when it comes to the use of social media. It puts pressure on employees to think twice before acting and this will help reduce similar incidents from happening again in future as ESPN’s NBA writer, Ric Butcher will tell you:

And what about Jeremy Schapp? His expertise and insight knowledge are being tied to the organisation he is working for. While ESPN’s hard-line stance might seem a tad too harsh and controversial, where do we draw the line? I will end my post with a video that typifies why ESPN are adopting a tough stance on social media usage against their employees.

Here are some useful links and references:


20 responses »

  1. Great Post, really in depth and covered a lot good job. took a lot away from your post

  2. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Great post Angjer.. you said “social media is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It can be your best ally, but also a genuine threat”. All social media vs organisation cases and incident we have seen, approve what you have said. In fact, having SMP should take high priority with any organisation.

    • You are right mate. A SMP spells out the rules and should the rules be broken, disciplinary action will be taken against those who violate them. It might sound abit harsh but its all in the interest of the organisation. Imagine the potential loss financially it could incur if these things escalate and go to law suits?!

  4. Great post, with a good example of why a SMP can be of value to an organisation. From an employee’s perspective it can perhaps be seen as being too overbearing, but I think a good comparison is employees going out after work in an easily recognisable work uniform. They can easily mis-represent their workplace if they have a couple too many drinks and this then reflects badly on the organisation. It’s a similar thing with social networks – employees behaving badly on Facebook/Twitter/etc can reflect badly on their employer.

    • That’s a good analogy you have there. This is also the reason why some companies have a “customized” social media system for internal organisational use such as General Electric as mentioned in my previous post.

  5. Nice post! ESPN is such a great example in social media policy term. After reading this article, I have learned more about how SMP helps a company which has practiced Enterprise 2.0 principle efficiently, but I am not quite sure about what kind of legal risks ESPN tries to deal with by its SMP?

    • Its mostly the basic stuff such as defamation, discrimination and false reporting etc. For a company of ESPN’s market stature, every incident comes under the microscope therefore their SMP plays a big part especially since they are constantly engaging with their audience via social media.

  6. Great post Jerome! I think SMP is really necessary when implementing Social Media within the company. As we can see from your blog there, one of the ESPN members did not abide by the policy – thus having the 2 week of Twitter (he must’ve gone mad!). Without SMP, employees will go wild with their ‘socializing’ and not contributing to the company and creating a negative brand image to the public. Great job with the post!

  7. Great post Angjer! I personally did not find Bill Simmons tweet worthy of a 2 week suspension, however it is important for companies to establish a clear social media policy and stick to it! When I read the word ‘prisioners’ in one of your final sentences, I was struck with an image in my head of 3 prisoners discussing what they were jailed for… One says ‘murder’, one says ‘drug pushing’, and the other replies, ‘for updating a facebook status’… I wonder if things will one day come to that!

    • ESPN is taking their SMP very seriously so if were the employee, i wouldnt want to court controversy and loose my job.

      • Great post Jerome, and I agree with Nikki that Bill’s tweet a worthy of a 2 week suspension. I believe if someone really affects the company in a way that harms it such as disclosure of confidential information; s/he should be penalized with an appropriate action. However, I really do not think that the employees should be “punished” over personal issues. People should differentiate personal issues and representing an organisation. Simply because everyone, including employees, has their own problems and I do believe that these personal problems should not cost their jobs.

      • I agree with you. But it really depends on alot of things. It depends on the company’s stance and obviously, the employee’s reputation. If he is a popular person on the internet and on TV, than whatever he says goes under the microscope all the time. It as an area for debate though and i think both you and Nikki have made valid points.

        But maybe taking a tough stance as ESPN did simply means that they have a no nonsense approach which is debatable whether it is too harsh on employees anot. I have included some links at the end of my post where some ESPN employees felt the company was getting a little too paranoid for everyone’s liking.

  8. Great post! I like it. ESPN is a new company for me, and you gave me a good explanation about the imporance of SMP. In my view, SMP is not used to restrict your freedom of speech, instead it can protect you and guide you to share your feeling and express yourself in a right way without harming others. The reading materials you provide are excellent!

  9. Great post. I think to some extent however that too much policy, and the company holding onto the reigns can stifle the innovation and creativity of people. I don’t see the harm in an ESPN employee having a sports website – I mean the category is so broad, what if they are a karate club owner, or supporter and wish to have that website created? Their approach seems sort of bordering on ‘too much’ which is almost as bad as ‘too little’.

    • Thanks Candice, you are absolutely right. I think the question here is, where do we draw the line? While opinions may differ, if this method is working well and clearly doing a job for ESPN, than maybe they should not fix something that aint broken.

  10. That is exactly right, where do you draw the line, it is an incredibly slippery slope. In terms of ESPN, where is it working, my question becomes how long will such stringent policies last? More and more of us are used to looser policies, which means when we shift into organizations with tighter policies there may be a bit of tension. Someone brought up an important point the other day, when we get a job we really should be sent their social media policies – goodness knows I didn’t even know my organization had one until recently. 😛

  11. That’s the same with me. I think it will help if companies issue a SMP 101 kind of brochure to employees on their first day of work or have a big poster on SMP in the pantry area. At least they cannot use “i’m not aware of this” as an excuse. 🙂


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