A Tweetable Moment

January 29, 2015
Should athletic departments ban or monitor their student-athletes' use of social media? One school is teaching the art of tweeting instead.
By Chris Syme

Chris Syme is Principal of CKSyme.org, an agency that specializes in crisis communications and social media training. A former sports information director and adjunct instructor, she can be reached through her blog and Web site at: www.cksyme.org.

Student-athletes live in a world of rules: school rules, team rules, compliance rules, family rules, and the list goes on. Most of their behavior is defined by what they cannot do. And social media is no exception.

Schools everywhere are putting together policies that regulate student-athletes' use of social media, and some are also monitoring it. An area that student-athletes may feel is their own domain now has rules attached to it.

Not that athletic departments can be blamed for their heavy hand. Student-athletes have been making headlines recently by posting photos that should be kept private and tweeting negative, racially insensitive, or uninformed thoughts, causing public-relations nightmares for their schools.

Athletic departments face tough questions right now in how they should deal with social media as it relates to their athletes. There are issues of control, training, and education. Waiting too long to answer these questions can result in confusion, negative fallout, and/or legal problems.

Controlling Use
A Fieldhouse Media report says that 73 percent of college student-athletes have a Twitter account. The number of college coaches banning athletes from Twitter rises each year as they are rightly concerned about the potential negative effects an inappropriate tweet can have on the reputation of the athlete and the school.

But is forbidding your student-athletes from tweeting the right move? Social media is a part of students' lives, and banning them from using it can send the wrong message. It conveys that, ultimately, you feel they are irresponsible. You don't trust them to represent the school.

Sportswriter Darren Rovell wrote a thoughtful piece titled, "Coaches Ban of Twitter Proves College Sports is Not About Education." In the article, he said, "There's also another message the coaches are sending: We're confident you can come through for us on the field, but we're not so sure off of it ... This isn't about freedom of speech. It's about proving that the biggest college sports can really be a teaching opportunity instead of just a multi-billion enterprise in which everyone capitalizes except for the kids themselves."

A step down from banning Twitter is to monitor student-athletes' use of social media. Some schools ask athletes to "friend" an application on their personal computers from companies like UDiligence and Varsity Monitor. These types of applications allow athletic personnel to monitor and delete posts that flag key words or topics in the athlete's personal social media posts.

The problem with this idea is that it is already illegal in several states and is quickly being outlawed by other state legislatures around the country. Social media lawyer Bradley Shear predicts that all states will have a law prohibiting this type of forced monitoring by employers and schools in the near future.

Shear also warns that monitoring can create legal problems for athletic departments. For instance, evidence that schools had access to a student's private account that contained communications concerning a criminal act or threat could result in liability for the school.

Education is a Win-Win
Instead of banning or controlling the use of social media, what if schools took the time to train student-athletes on how to use social media well? Imagine if student-athletes were taught to develop their own personal brands, which would help promote the school at the same time.

That's the goal of the University of Washington's Featured Athlete program. Daniel Hour, Manager of New Media and Recruiting Services at UW, started the program with just a couple of volunteer athletes. The group has now grown to 30.

The Featured Athlete program goes beyond giving student-athletes a list of do's and don'ts by providing a training program and integration with UW social media. To start, athletes must make it through an approval process and sign off on the rules. They then take a short course on how to use social media responsibly. This includes instruction on what and what not to post, how to represent themselves in the best light, how often to post, and their responsibilities in the program.

After going through the training, the student-athletes get a branded avatar on the Huskies Web site, a #FeaturedAthlete Twitter hashtag when mentioned in media releases, and retweets from the @UWAthletics account (which has over 25,000 followers). In addition, their tweets are used on the UW recruiting site and featured during in-game PA announcements, and they are listed in the UW social media directory.

This initiative has helped UW market its athletic program in new ways by connecting fans directly with the athletes through a "student-athlete" tab on the department's Web site. The tab highlights the student-athlete experience and the Featured Athlete page. At the same time, it has helped student-athletes learn to use social media in a professional way, providing them with potential job skills.

In addition, Hour meets with all UW teams individually to discuss social media. He talks about both good and bad uses of the tool, citing examples of how athletes have hurt their reputation--and potential earning power at the pro level--from social media missteps.

While the increasing power of social media can seem like a huge headache, it can also be thought of as an educational and publicity opportunity. "It is our belief," Hour says, "that social media, when used properly, can be an advantage in recruiting, marketing, and team chemistry, and it can enhance the student-athlete's personal brand."
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