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Athletes and Social Media: Untapped Goldmine or PR Landmine?

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Future NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant recently suffered a torn Achilles and shortly afterward shared his frustration with millions of fans on his Facebook page. In less than 48 hours Kobe's post received more than 400,000 Likes. Many in the media used the term "rant" to describe Kobe's post, but rather than focusing on any negative connotation associated with the term rant (yes, he was understandably devastated by the season-ending injury) the post is a perfect example of how social media can serve as a platform for authentic communication between a superstar athlete and his or her fans.

As social media has exploded over the past few years it has introduced new opportunities, along with its share of challenges, with respect to how we communicate. The implications, both positive and negative, are amplified when it comes to celebrities on social media. As a die-hard sports fan I have watched with interest to see how professional athletes in particular are using social utilities such as Facebook and Twitter.

Most of us have heard horror stories about people (from all walks of life) sharing questionable or clearly inappropriate content through social channels. Not surprisingly there are numerous examples of this happening with athletes. One such example is former University of North Carolina football player Marvin Austin, whose tweeting supposedly triggered a University investigation that led to his dismissal from the football team and sanctions on the program.

On the flip side there are athletes who are using social media to engage with fans in a positive manner. Shaquille O'Neal has almost 7 million followers on his @Shaq Twitter account, where he expresses his larger than life personality and will occasionally tweet clues to his whereabouts for impromptu meet-ups with fans. Another example is Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, whose @strombone1 Twitter persona helped endear the goalie to fans following a disappointing playoff loss and rampant trade rumors.

Most professional sports leagues have instituted social media policies that prohibit athletes from posting or tweeting during games and for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours before and after. Otherwise players are generally free to use social media as they see fit. At the college level some coaches, including Steve Spurrier, head football coach at South Carolina have banned players from using Twitter altogether.

I think this approach misses the point. Today many young athletes are already active on social media by the time they enter college. Prohibiting them from using social media cuts off one of their primary conduits for communication. It also delays the need for these young adults to assume accountability for what they say. Student-athletes should be taught how to use social media responsibly, in the same way they are prepared to deal with traditional media.

At the collegiate level the use of social media can allow athletes to share a bit more of themselves with friends and fans, while teaching them to behave responsibly and act as an ambassador for their university. With social media savvy becoming an increasingly important job skill, this will help provide student-athletes with a leg up as they enter the workforce. And for the lucky few that become professional athletes it can be an extremely valuable asset as well.

In the same way that many companies have utilized social media to engage with consumers and develop greater brand awareness, so too can individuals who might not otherwise have the ability to reach a mass audience. Yet it seems many professional athletes have yet to capitalize on social media to its full extent to build their personal brand.

Some of the larger artist management firms and sports marketing agencies have begun to embrace a more social strategy for their clients. However, many athletes are not currently receiving social media support from either their agents or teams. This not only exposes the athlete and organization to potential PR backlash, but is also a missed opportunity to utilize the medium to increase the value of sponsorship and endorsements or to promote a personal cause.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, David Carter, head of the USC Sports Business Institute was quoted saying, "As celebrity endorsements move beyond the superstars, the mid-level player with personality and social-media savvy can reach endorsement and name-recognition levels that were once only the domain of the best of the best."

The WSJ article cites former Yankee and current member of the Cleveland Indians, Nick Swisher, as a prime example of an athlete using social media to maximum effect. As a result of his social media presence he was asked by Mercedes to participate in the car manufacturer's Super Bowl campaign. He enlisted the support of his Twitter followers and in the process helped to not only raise his profile but also money for his charity.

Catalyst Public Relations conducted a study that explored the attitudes and habits of NFL, NBA, MLB and college football and basketball fans on social media. Of primary interest to marketers is the finding that sports fans that follow their favorite athletes on social media are 55% more likely to purchase a brand if an athlete mentions it on Facebook or Twitter.

The Catalyst data and the story of Nick Swisher should inspire professional athletes and their business managers to embrace social media if they haven't already. Just as those companies who were early adopters of social media have been able to carve a social identity and increase brand equity, there is a window of opportunity for athletes to set themselves apart and make the most of social media.

I'm sure we will continue to hear stories about social media faux pas among athletes, but I believe that in the coming years we will hear a lot more examples of how social media is being used to improve the image of professional sports, humanize the heroes we place on pedestals, and build more genuine and authentic relationships amongst athletes and fan communities. As a fan, that is something I look forward to. And as a marketer it is something I see tremendous opportunity in.

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