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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: