Managing the Risks and Rewards of Social Media, as Illustrated by ESPN’s New Social Networking Policy

We just wrapped our October issue of Risk Management magazine today, and the cover story discusses the opportunities and risks for companies who use social media like blogs, Twitter and YouTube to enhance their brands and sell products. Nowadays, most companies are involved in such “Web 2.0” activities to at least some degree, but many still seem to lack a proper understanding of the potential exposures.

As always, that’s where risk managers come in. So we hope that the article, which was written by yours truly, will help put the issue on the risk management radar.

The piece focuses mainly on the reputation and possible legal risks involved, but there is a lot more to this issue, much of which unfortunately couldn’t be fit into a six-page magazine article. Thus, I thought I would share one of the things I came across that didn’t make the final cut.

ESPN, which was one of the first traditional media companies to really embrace social media, recently issued an official policy for social networking that limited what the company’s “forward-facing talent” (i.e., 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 the policy, which have been called “short-sighted” and “draconian” by sports bloggers, are a good specific example of the things that our story discusses in more general terms.

Essentially, the key takeaway in the policy is the line “Assume at all times you are representing ESPN” and, according to’s head honcho Rob King, at least some of the reasoning behind instituting the policy was to protect ESPN from potential legal action.

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.

King explains the policy further.

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.

This is the type of stuff you can expect to see in our October cover story, which we hope will help break down some of the Web 2.0 basics for the many risk managers out there who still don’t know the difference between a tweet and a YouTube.

And the ESPN news all goes to show that media companies are indeed beginning to institute official policies on social media, and I think we will see this as a (slowly) developing trend for even non-media companies, particularly as more legal clarity begins to develop surrounding all these concepts. Things like this case involving a landlord suing a tenant for libel based on a tweet she made will help define how social media grievances are handled in a court of law.

Such clarity is a still a ways off, however. We all know how quickly the courts move.

But in the meantime, watch the extremely cool video below. It really helps illustrate how large this phenomenon is.

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2 thoughts on “Managing the Risks and Rewards of Social Media, as Illustrated by ESPN’s New Social Networking Policy

  1. More clarity is always welcome on how social media fits into existing legal frameworks. We need to assume that the legal rules will always be behind the fast-paced changes on the web. But it is fairly easy to figure how most web 2.0 will be treated (assuming the judges understand it.)

    As for the landlord suing a tenant case, I think it lacks much utility. The parties were already suing each other. The landlord just piled the libel claim into a bunch of existing other counter-claims.

    Of course, you can libel someone using Twitter or any Web 2.0 tool. There are just many new ways to do so.

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