Editor’s note: This is a guest post by my colleague, Carlos Victor of CVComunicar Consultancy, in Spain. This post originally appeared in Spanish on Carlos’ blog, Crisis de Reputación Online.
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”.
judith delaney says
this article is well written. I applaud the Olympic Committee for their rule 40. Whether it is atheletes or just any human being, to play on the old saying “think before your speak” and rewrite it to “think before your write” is, I believe, a very important thought to keep in mind when logging in to one’s Twitter, or Facebook, etc. accounts. The right to speak does not mean bullying, harassing, or defaming another. the “hope” that the Olympic Committee sits down and “negotiates” with the athletes is for what purpose. If you invade someone’s privacy or libel another with your words, as Piers Morgan of CNN stated, you should not just be sent home you should be banned from participating in any future games as well because the atheletes supposedly represent the best of the best and ugly, biased, hurtful and arrogant words do not or should not be a role model for others.
Heather Yaxley says
There are three other points I would like to add from a British perspective to this great summary. First is the way in which athletes and presenters used Twitter to communicate with each other – indeed we saw former Olympic swimmer and BBC commentator, Ian Thorpe inducted into Twitter with encouragement from various other presenters. This added further to the BBC’s digital coverage with British athletes also actively thanking the support they had received via Twitter.
Second, you could directly track an increase in followers for the British Gold medal winners – this in part arose from congratulatory Tweets from fellow athletes and presenters. Will be interesting to see if these followers are retained and maximised going forwards.
Third point is how the opening and closing celebrations were extended by viewers taking to Twitter. For the opening in particular, people were keen to share their enjoyment – and they were more critical of the closing performances. There appeared to be few Tweets from those in the Stadium although a few people I know did send the occasional update (presume they were enjoying too much to use SM).
Steven Spenser says
None of the isolated incidents the blogger cites qualify as “social media fiascos” or “online reputation crises.” Making boorish and/or bigoted comments at the Olympics is no different than making the same remarks when not at the Olympics. The actions of the few individuals cited in the article may have tarnished their own reputations–and had personal consequences that created a crisis in their own lives–but they hardly constituted a crisis of any sort for the London Games or the IOC.
One of the incidents mentioned in the article actually occurred *before* the Olympics opened, which immediately renders it irrelevant to the point of the article.
With the possible exception of two athletes being sent home by their countries, none of the cases cited affected the overall outcome of the London games. Both the London organizers and the IOC survived everything mentioned in this article quite handily.
Another example, incredibly, mentions vague accusations that a Brazilian athlete was “distracted by social networks,” thereby “experiencing a lack of focus, which could have affected his performance.” It *could* have–but, OTOH, it equally well could *not* have; no-one will ever know unless the athlete later uses it as an excuse. I’ve worked as an editor for AP and The Seattle Times, and I can’t imagine any American editor permitting such unsubstantiated allegations to be printed.
In another example cited, a British fan was arrested for making threats against an athlete. That’s right: One. Person. Arrested. This is hardly a crisis—or even worth mentioning.
The fact that NBC attracted criticism for its delayed broadcasts does not, in itself, qualify as a crisis, either–especially since, as I understand it, any fan able to access the Internet could watch her favorite London event streamed live at NBC.com. That effectively rendered most of the criticism moot. If NBC is accurate in its claim that the London games attracted the greatest TV audience in American history, that suggests nearly 220 million fans were willing to put up with the delayed broadcasts.
The “wedemandchange” campaign by a few athletes did not affect the London 2012 games, so it could not possibly have been a crisis. Athletes have complained in every Olympiad, but their complaints rarely have attracted the attention of ticket-holders or viewers.
Merriam Webster defines a crisis as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially : one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome,” and “a situation that has reached a critical phase.” Not a single example in this article constitutes a decisive change or a situation at a critical phase.
The writer is making the common mistake of mistaking online smoke for actual fire. The posting of a few, isolated, critical comments online does not, by itself, amount to any kind of crisis. For online comments to rise to the level of a crisis, they must have an impact beyond their mere existence.
Carlos Victor Costa says
I appreciated your time and comments on my post, though I think you may have misinterpreted my message. I did not present the incidents as a“fiasco” for the Olympic Games, but rather listed the issues as “problems” or headaches that the IOC had to address and will have to take better care to address in the future. I also did not imply that the examples severely affected the Games or IOC’s reputation, I’m sorry if my message was unclear. Let me attempt to clarify it for you:
I wrote on how social media turned into a new risk for the IOC and I summarized some examples as evidence of risks surrounding the Games for its stakeholders (not only the IOC) with the use of social media.
I think you misinterpreted, what you called “unsubstantiated allegations” regarding the comment related to the Brazilian gymnastic. I did not affirm that social media distracted him, I just said that he was being accused of that. This was a hypothesis raised by the leading Brazilian newspaper O Globo that gathered some experts to debate on the topic (http://oglobo.globo.com/olimpiadas2012/sera-que-faltou-foco-diego-hypolito-em-londres-5622023). Actually, in the same key, Lord Sebastian Coe affirmed something very similar (not regarding the Brazilian gymnastic, but in general). There is a link in my text to his comments, also. You see, it was not a vague speculation, but something that other sources also considered it as a matter of concern (the fact that social media excessive use by athletes might interfere on their concentration).
If events such as the NBC criticism and the #Wedemandchange movement (both trending topics in Twitter with huge media coverage) do not qualify to your criteria of a crisis or potential crisis, and you consider them just “business as usual”, that is your call and I respect that. However, I believe that the NBC, the sponsors, and the IOC were not reckless in managing their own organizational reputations, handling these situations very, very carefully as a potential crisis or a crisis de facto to avoid further damage.
The NBC issue with their consumers and #Wedemandchange examples were not signs of “smoke”, these were real fires, serious issues, and as a crisis communications manager I prefer to play it safe in this area. I never advise my clients to sit and wait to see all the forest in ashes before calling the firemen, for lack of a better analogy. I follow Andy Grove´s motto “Only the Paranoid survive” and try to always be ahead of the game.
The variety and quantity of examples I described in my article invite professionals and researchers to pay more attention to the social media factor in the next Games, and that was my goal within this article.
Steven Spenser says
1) You write that “I did not present the incidents as a“fiasco” for the Olympic Games…”
This blog piece’s summary description in the LI group Public Relations and Communications Professionals, which linked to this guest post, was (and still is): “A look at the social media fiascos and the online reputation crises that the 2012 London Olympics experienced.”
That line cannot possibly be interpreted to mean anything other than that (multiple) social-media fiascos and (multiple) online reputation crises occurred at the Games.
2) Your own hedline for this piece makes plain that an online reputation crisis occurred at the Games; lessons cannot be learned from a crisis that did not happen. You also wrote originally that “…social media also generated an online reputation crisis for the IOC, with the #wedemandchange campaign…”
Despite this, you now write that “I…did not imply that the examples severely affected the Games or IOC’s reputation” and that the examples cited were only mere “problems” or “headaches…”
But if that’s all they were, then how could any of them have generated an actual online reputation crisis at the Games, as your original piece states?
3) As someone who was an emergency responder in the Navy, I can attest that small crises do not exist. Just as a woman is either pregnant or not pregnant, crises have no middle ground–you are either in one or you aren’t. Every crisis is, by definition, a serious matter with significant impacts and consequences.
Therefore, how is it possible that two online reputation crises occurred at the Games, but they did not severely affect the Games or the IOC’s reputation?
4) You now write that “The NBC issue with their consumers and #Wedemandchange examples were not signs of “smoke”, these were real fires, serious issues…” That certainly sounds like a crisis to me.
But if they were only “problems” or “headaches” that didn’t rise to the level of a crisis, as you now claim, then how could they also be “real fires [and] serious issues”? You can’t have it both ways.