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Tweeting athletes want followers, not tips on careful posting, social media consultants say

May 16, 2011 |  1:42 pm

Twitter_275 As I wrote in Monday's Times, Twitter, the micro-blogging service that has inarguably redefined mass communication, can cause considerable harm to one's reputation, or "brand," when used carelessly. We've seen this happen quite a bit with athletes.

Two social media consultants I talked to discussed the potential disconnect that exists with some athletes in regards to social media. Each of them said that when an athlete approaches them about starting a Twitter account, often the first question the athlete asked was how to gain more followers instead of what kind of content is appropriate.

"That’s what they want to do right away," said Erit Yellen, a Los Angeles-based sports media consultant. "It’s rare their first question is about content."

Kathleen Hessert, a social media consultant who helped launch Shaquille O'Neal's Twitter account, said athletes often get in trouble because the idea of Twitter runs counter to the well-accepted hierarchal, sports environment in which players follow orders doled out by coaches or managers and so on.

"That's obviously counter to being social, so [the coaches and adminstration] don't value social," she said. 

Hessert added, "I had a person from an [NFL] player personal team say he told his front office that any player they were considering to draft that was doing social media, that they should downgrade a draftee on their scale because he was more concerned with his personal brand than with the team."

As such, because of the already negative view most sports franchise adminstrations hold regarding Twitter, when a player posts anything remotely questionable talks of banning players from Twitter outright arise, either from the team or the league, which can lead to a few things.

One is players viewing Twitter as an unfiltered -- i.e. renegade -- voice within an organization or league that often places high priority on controlling its message.

"Sometimes players just want to be contrary," said Ralph Cindrich, a sports agent and attorney.

Another possible outcome is players fearing Twitter and a possible mistake on it to the point they'll stop using it rather than learn how to use it properly, which Hessert said was an idea she vehemently opposed. 

"It’s not a good thing because the bottom line is ... as much as there is a risk, fans in the large part don’t care what the front office says," she said. "They care what the players say and do. I think it’s disingenuous for a team to use social media as marketing and say to your star athletes that you can’t do it. Teach them how to do it well."

Still, whether trained or not, some athletes just don't comprehend the concept of mass communication.

“They’re not always the most thoughtful individuals and they have no idea about the magnitude of [Twitter],” said Leonard D. Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist who is director of sports science for the Vancouver Canucks. “They don’t realize this is going all over the world. And if they do, they rather enjoy it.”

Fearlessness factors into that.

“To be an athlete, especially to be an athlete in the professional world, you have to carry the sense about yourself that you’re bulletproof,” said Daniel Durbin, director of USC’s Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society.

“You can look at is, ‘Yes, I’ll probably be injured at one time and I’ll be out of the game for that time,’ but you have to think of yourself as bulletproof and say, ‘Yeah, but that’s not going to happen tonight.’

“That kind of thinking can slip into other areas, which can be problematic.”

But, Yellen added, because of a pro athletes’ rampant media exposure, the public will see them at their worst, somehow.

As Durbin noted, “Kobe Bryant did not need a Twitter to offer a homophobic slur that made its way all around the world." 


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