Social Media and Online Reputation Crisis in the London Olympics: Lessons Learned
The risk of a reputation crisis in social media was this year’s headache for the organizers of the Olympic Games in London. They added another element to the usual concerns of terrorist attacks, infrastructure problems, diplomatic gaffes (exchanged flags and anthems of the different countries, for example), and that element was reputation risks by means of social media, which has proven to be as uncontrollable in nature as the more traditionally known risks. This year we saw that the athletes and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) tried to prepare themselves for the risk involved with mixing the passion of sports and athletes from every country in the world, with instantaneous social media tools. However, the results were not always satisfactory.
Social media allows direct interaction between athletes and their fans and this drives increased value for the athletes’ personal brands as well as the brands of their sponsors. However, the same excitement and interest in following such stars as Michael Phelps (550,000 followers on Twitter) or Brazilian football player Neymar (almost 5 million followers) made the Olympic organizers set out to establish rules and strict guidelines for the athletes’ use of social media during the Olympic Games.
Amongst other things mentioned in this ‘style guide and behavior’, the IOC recommended that content dissemination regarding the Games was to be “dignified, tasteful and must not include vulgar words and obscene images.” Photos inside the Olympic Village were allowed, but not video or audio, and another important point was that athletes were warned “not to promote any brand, product or service in a blog, or tweet” associated with their participation in the Games – a very sensitive issue, also known as “Rule Number 40.”
The IOC’s goals were to defend the image of the Games and the interests of the official sponsors, but on the other hand, athletes did not want to give up their power of expression that social media enables them with. Some, like American athlete Nick Symmonds, told Mashable that the rules of the IOC were “absurd” and exaggerated. However, there are athletes who, even with these guidelines (or rules of common sense) had very unpleasant problems:
- Before even starting the games, the Greek Olympic team sent home the triple jump athlete Paraskevi Papachristou, due to a racist remark made from her Twitter account.
- A week later, the Swiss Michel Morganella was also expelled for another racist remark on Twitter: “I destroyed all Koreans, go to hell, bunch of retards” tweeted Morganella after her loss to South Korea.
- Moreover, it seems that the constant interaction with their fans and followers led to some degenerate actions. The judoka Rafaela Silva got into a fight on Twitter when a follower heavily criticized her. She fought back using profanity. Later, she corrected himself: “I was a hothead,” she said.
- Another example from Brazil: the gymnast Diego Hypolito was accused of having been distracted by social networks and thus experiencing a lack of focus, which could have affected his performance. Perhaps he should have listened to the former great athlete and president of the organizing committee, Sebastian Coe, who had already warned the athletes about the excessive use of social media.
But there was more:
- The television network NBC was a trending topic in the United States with the hashtag #NBCfail because much of its transmission of the games was not live, and this generated a lot of criticism and even a crisis with Twitter, the company.
- A British fan was arrested for threats and insults to a British athlete.
- Finally, social media also generated an online reputation crisis for the IOC, with the #wedemandchange campaign, spearheaded by some American track and field athletes unhappy with the ‘Rule Number 40′. It was a trending topic in North America and Europe.
- I believe that the coexistence of the personal micromedia (social media) and the traditional mass media will not be as easy to achieve in the arena of sports, the same as it is not an easy task in the political arena. The sponsors may have to accept some changes to fit the reality of the new communication technologies, but for those who pay astronomical amounts to sponsor the Olympics or other sporting events, such as the Football World Cup, it is clearly very difficult to accept that there is little to no control over these events giving visibility to other brands (the so-called “ambush marketing”). Too much water will pass under the bridge and the great Carl Lewis was right in saying that regarding the controversy of “Rule Number 40″ the time will come when athletes, the IOC and sponsors will sit down to negotiate. We can only hope that they will come to a strategic agreement by the time of the Rio Games in 2016.
- In addition, athletes may have to be careful and review their own use of social media, reconsidering the use of communications experts to guide them. After all, a sports athlete is not a communications professional, and some help was proven to be needed during those stressful days at the London Games.
Four years ago in Beijing, social media was in its infancy and there were no restrictions on its use in the 2008 Olympics. In the winter games in Vancouver (2010), the use of social media was widespread and some simple guidelines and recommendations on the subject were issued on how to write a blog, for example. This year London was considered the birthplace of the “Social Olympics”, but it was clear that, in the end, London was at best the ‘Social Olympics … in Progress”.