ESPN’s Social Media Policy: The Disingenuous Tweet and Hiding the Ball (Update)

Update: Response from ESPN’s Nate Smeltz at bottom.

Oh, the tangled webs we weave.

This is today’s Blog Buzz segment. In it, Josh Elliott speaks about how the network’s social media policy, which tops this morning’s Blog Buzz, is not meant to ruin the social network experience.

He also says: “When the blogosphere was buzzing about this last night, one of our first responses was via Twitter.”

A screenshot.

A screenshot.

This is a screenshot of that response, which Elliott read aloud, pulled from the 2:16 mark of that video.

This is a screenshot of ESPN’s SportsCenter Twitter from 3:26 PM this afternoon:

I see no such tweet.

I see no such tweet.

The tweet Elliott seemingly refers to does not exist.

A Twitter search for the first sentence of it, “We have been active in the social media space for a while,” returns no results. A Google search finds just two, one in today’s Hot Clicks from Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina, one in a morning roundup at Joe Sports Fan.

It does not appear on ESPN’s offical Twitter, either.

Where it does appear, with “awhile” used for “a while,” is on ESPN publicist Nate Smeltz’ account, as seen here:

Taken at 3:37 PM on August 5th.

Taken at 3:37 PM on August 5th.

So it does exist. Sort of. (Fewer than 200 Google results for that.) Why, then, is this a big deal?

Because it speaks to ESPN’s monolithic culture of secrecy and continued lack of respect for its customers.

Smeltz’ account has just 212 followers. It’s very easy to hide this statement there and call it the word handed down from ESPN, because that number is .15% of ESPN’s over 140,000 followers, and .22% of the SportsCenter account’s 94,000-plus followers.

Taken at 12:30 AM August 5th.

Taken at 12:30 AM August 5th.

Yet this policy was revealed to the world through Ric Bucher. It was blown up on the Internet by successive posts at The Big Lead and Deadspin. It trended as a topic on Twitter last night, beating out the release of two American journalists from North Korea, before ESPN mentioned this on air today.

In framing the tweet with the SportsCenter account’s URL and the traditional SportsCenter graphics, ESPN is only trying to hide that this spun out of control in ways they did not anticipate and did not respond to either quickly or fully.

ESPN, by letting information seep out, is either intentionally or unintentionally making this policy known through proxies, which, theoretically, should keep it relatively hush-hush.

But the seeming insensitivity to the value of the powerful brand connection ESPN personalities are making on Twitter, largely by merely being themselves, is going to reflect poorly on the company. The murky language on whether this policy will only prevent leaks of viable news or trammel ESPN’s personalities as a whole only further serves to make this miasma that seems to suffocate the network more toxic.

It’s fitting, of course, that ESPN cannot even manage to get their one voice straight while trying to corral a medium where thousands of voices chatter.

This is mismanagement at best and deception at worst.

ESPN should know this better than anyone: If you know the fumblerooskie’s coming, it’s not going to work.

Update: ESPN’s Nate Smeltz emailed me this response this morning. All links added are mine.

A few things you should be aware of when framing opinions of our response to the social media guidelines…

— my initial tweet was in direct response to a Mashable post, which contained misinformation
— we quickly used the best mechanism (my Twitter account, in this case — reminder, this was after 11 p.m. ET) to reach out to the author of the Mashable item
— while my Twitter account is admittedly lacking in followers, it was the best avenue to immediately get our statement and guidelines to this outlet (which was the goal, in this case)
— as a PR dept., we responded to every media request seeking information on this subject promptly, distributing the full social media guidelines to all outlets (including The Big Lead, which was one of many to appreciate the transparency)
— my Twitter account was by no means the only vehicle for distribution of the statement nor the media guidelines for commentators or employees (it was also circulated by ESPN Twitter accounts with many more followers, such as our official ESPN PR feed)
— not to be lost in all this is that it was covered on SportsCenter — the largest possible reach we could provide — and several other ESPN shows
— yesterday, one of our executives was available to address this topic further with outlets including USA Today, Sports Business Daily and Mashable

It’s unfair and misguided to make any reference to “monolithic culture of secrecy” or “deception” given the level of transparency exhibited over the course of the last several days. In all cases, we have offered timely responses through the appropriate channels.

The Mashable post that happened after Smeltz reached out to Jennifer Van Grove is available here. The interviews with “one of our executives” were with editor-in-chief Rob King.

Smeltz is partially correct: There is a level of unfairness in my post when I suggest that ESPN has a “monolithic culture of secrecy” or that there is an element of “deception” to what ESPN has done in regards to this matter.

But I chalk that up to my personal standards for ESPN.

I do consider it deceptive to broadcast on ESPN’s flagship network and show a tweet from Smeltz and frame it with the Twitter URL for SportsCenter, even if that is more a matter of oversight than intent to deceive. And I do think it speaks to ESPN’s “culture of secrecy,” “monolithic” or not, that an account of the reaction to the memo in question reports it is making ESPN employees “paranoid” and includes details about employees being averse to sharing it for fear of ESPN reprisal.

My suggestion to ESPN with future matters like this: Have the PR wing maintain a well-known and well-publicized website that can respond to these scenarios quickly and less obscurely than an admittedly low-profile Twitter account. Smeltz is correct to assert that there is a more standard level of transparency from ESPN now than in the bike rack memo days, but I feel there is a long way to go, and offering as explanation that the time was after 11 PM on a network that broadcasts live or near it for almost all 24 hours seems flimsy.

Update: Smeltz responds to this point in another email: “The 11 p.m. ET reference was specifically directed towards the response to Mashable’s initial post…meaning, given the time of day, we needed to get our statement and guidelines to them very quickly and my Twitter account was the best mechanism.” This is a valid point, but does not preclude further clarification later in the evening from the West Coast or another medium.

According an unsourced section on the ESPN page at Wikipedia, “ESPN broadcasts primarily out of its studios in Bristol, Connecticut; it also operates offices out of New York City; Seattle, Washington; Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles, California; the Los Angeles office opened at L.A. Live in early 2009. SportsCenter is now also broadcast from the LA office.” If, at after 11 PM on the East Coast, where Smeltz and I both live, it was late to come up with this response, why not delegate the task to the part of the country where it was only just entering primetime?

That point made, let us turn to the good steps ESPN took.

I applaud ESPN for dispatching King to media outlets yesterday: He answered questions fully and candidly. (His ESPN blog post through their SportsNation platform is also well worth reading.) Clarity like that, and the update to the memo Deadspin and others were sent does take the events of Tuesday into account.

Further, though Twitter is currently down and I cannot access it to show proof, I take Smeltz’ word that ESPN also broadcast the news via <a href= PR account on Twitter. I’m not sure how broad an audience that hit, but provides more exposure than the updates on Smeltz’ account.

Update: Smeltz is correct about the response.

But it is important to note the time:

Taken at 1:36 PM, August 6th.

Taken at 1:36 PM, August 6th.

The response came around noon on Wednesday, August 5th, and came in the form of links to full policies for employees and talent. It was lightly retweeted.

With time, ESPN is responding very well and comprehensively to this event; that this blog post, which has garnered just over 100 views, gets a response is testament to that. I would guess that ESPN is going to reach out and talk to many of the writers that have opined on this in the blogosphere of late, and that sort of diligence is admirable.

But I think one of ESPN’s key misunderstandings here is that the Twitter era, even beyond the medium of Twitter, increasingly demands immediacy in addition to accuracy and thoroughness in its consumption of information.

In my mind, the standards have been raised. It is up to ESPN to meet them.


Filed under Analysis, ESPN, Social Media

8 responses to “ESPN’s Social Media Policy: The Disingenuous Tweet and Hiding the Ball (Update)

  1. Peter Della Penna

    First and most obvious lie that anyone who knows anything about Twitter and all this stuff would have spotted right away: ESPN’s “Tweet on Social Media Policy” is impossible because just by looking at the screen you can tell it is way longer than 140 characters. By my quick count just now, it was 226 if they were to actually attempt to submit it. So there is no legitimate way it could have appeared as a Tweet in its presented screen shot form anywhere on Twitter.

    • Well, yeah. But I’m okay with it being too long for one update; it’s the misrepresentation of it being from SportsCenter that rankled me most.

      And there technically is a way to extend a tweet, but I doubt ESPN’s heard of TwitLonger.

  2. Adrian Carrasquillo

    Great post. I liked the digging you did and the analysis. I wrote about this today as well. ESPN has a culture of secrecy and deception and I’m not really sure why. Does it come down from someone at Disney? They own Sports, this is not a Coca Cola/Pepsi thing. Check out my post, I think you’ll like it.

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  4. Pingback: (Updated With ESPN Response) ESPN’s Social Media Policy: The Disingenuous Tweet and Hiding the Ball « The Arena

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