Sportsmen and Twitter: how they influence their communities

Guest Post: Steven Woodgate MA, 25, has just graduated with distinction in Public Relations in his postgraduate study at Southampton Solent University. His love for sport stemmed from his undergraduate degree in sports journalism and following Reading FC. You can follow him on @StevenWoodgate

The introduction of Social Media has been a common problem. A major problem. Reoccurring themes of battles between the individual and the organisation has proved hostile and ineffective. Sport is an industry where corporate communications is underdeveloped, and with so many instances being reported with sportsmen’s use of twitter, it needs better regulation in place. 

This research looked into sportsmen’s use of Twitter and how they influence their community, and from there, what is the impact on the organization they represent.

In all, eleven sportsmen were used as the sample:  from football, Rio FerdinandMichael Owen,Wayne Rooney and Joey Barton; from Formula One racing, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button; from cricket, Kevin PietersenGraeme Swann and Stuart Broad; and from rugby, Brian O’Driscoll and James Haskell.

To take further understanding from the implication of these tweets, a formula was devised to see the potential impact and influence of each individual Tweet. Each of the mentioned case studies were reviewed by their social media output between July 1st and August 7th.

To determine the impact of each individual tweet and to work out whether a tweet is “positive” or “negative” for corporate reputation, deep content analysis and a formula were devised. Current social media measuring platforms like Klout and Kred measure overall ‘influence’ and ‘interaction’, this formula wanted to target each individual to see how impactful it was on its followers and then each tweet was put into one of three categories: positive, neutral and negative (Tweeters, Twits & Twats).

100 / (Followers/(Re-tweets + Favourited)
= Percentage of impact on corporate reputation

Applying this formula to each tweet determined the impact on its followers and whether that post was influential and circulated – the higher the percentage, higher the impact. This formula was created as it can target all sports personalities and the important thing to notice is that it is targeting influence and not popularity.

To build business objectives, a sense of measurement needs to be established. By using this formula of followers divided by the number of re-tweets and favourited each individual posts gets, the corporate communicator can immediately identify whether the post has been influential in the sportperson’s community therefore ranking the sportsperson highly in their social media guidelines.

Footballers tend to have more followers than other sportspeople but that is not saying that because of a smaller following, their impact on corporate reputation would not be as significant. The image below shows that a formula was needed to provide critical exploration that detailed content analysis did not provide. The formula gives extra depth that was needed to discover which of the sportspeople analysed were influential. The percentages in Figure 1 show what percentages of Tweets were positive or negative for corporate reputation and by using the formula, this dissertation could actually explore the impact.


Figure 1: The chart shows the percentage of tweets splitting into negative, neutral and positive impacts on corporate reputation

Figure 2 below shows clear indication which sportspeople have a considerable impact on corporate reputation. From the sportspeople analysed, cricketer Graeme Swann and racing driver Lewis Hamilton appear to have a larger influence percentage affecting corporate reputation.

The overall average of the sportspeople mentioned shows a greater impact on their audience. A closer examination of certain tweets reaching bigger percentages showed that Lewis Hamilton was talking about ‘contract break downs’ with his employer, McLaren and Graeme Swann’s impact is similar to that of ‘neutral’ state. He purely uses Twitter for ‘banter‘ purposes, even though, sometimes, it is at the expense of his teammates.

Banter is a concept that is common in sport, and especially sport teams. It helps build team spirit and creates a good atmosphere, however those who are outside of the ‘banter’ can see it as insensitive and careless and as social media is public, these posts can be easily taken out of context. Corporate communicators need to target this to guarantee social media is being used appropriately and to fulfill its potential.

Figure 2: Using the ‘Influence’ Formula, the chart shows the influence from each individual from a corporate reputation point of view

Regardless of the ‘banter’ tweets, it proves that Hamilton and Swann are highly influential when it comes to using social media. Hamilton’s negative influence came from only two tweets, showing that the public and media examine every post carefully. Therefore, it is essential that a social media policy is put into place to stop tweets like this – even though they can be rare in number, their impact can be disproportionately negative because they reach such a large audience that is only amplified through re-tweets.

The most overriding conclusion extracted from the findings is the response each of the sports gets. Football, as expected, attracts large volumes of followers and that is reflected in re-tweets and replies they get from each tweet. Every post is analysed and used to either make a story or to engage supporters and football fans. The comments are not always positive, and some of them are simply abuse. However, there is some clear indication that certain posts received more abuse than others. This is why corporate communicators need to manage this process and provide guidelines to ensure the best possible messages are given out.

The content analysis provides greater understanding of how sportspeople use social media networks like Twitter. James Haskell, for instance, uses it more to ‘banter’ other rugby players, whereas Rio Ferdinand uses it to endorse his external business ventures. The use is wide spreading, but what is clear from this content analysis, all of them are using it personally and not through agencies. This leaves each individual open to abuse and possible news stories.

Referring back to the three typologies – Tweeters, Twits and Twats – the use of content analysis can categorise these players. The ‘Tweeters’, taken from the content analysis are Jenson Button, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen who score highly on positive effects on corporate reputation.

The ‘Twits’ are James Haskell, Stuart Broad, Kevin Pietersen, Joey Barton and Rio Ferdinand who have considerable influence but are not using it to its full potential.

They use twitter to ‘banter’ and that can have a bad impact on corporate reputation. The inclusion of controversial tweeters such as Rio Ferdinand and Kevin Pietersen in the twit category shows just how difficult it is to maintain neutrality. Both could be seen to have fallen into bad habits, it is important to show that some of the social media posts can easily fall into the ‘twat’ category, but these sportspeople use Twitter for positive means as well.

The ‘Twats’ are Graeme Swann and Lewis Hamilton, as it appears they have a lot of influence and as soon as they post something negative against corporate reputation, it becomes extremely popular with their followers. Nullifying these types of tweets would actually put both sportspersons into the ‘Tweeter’ category because they do have considerable impact on their community.


The biggest conclusion to take from this content analysis is that 70% of the 1098 tweets analysed were ‘neutral’. The sportspeople were either stating an opinion or promoting external business ventures. Corporate communicators are missing an opportunity here. With the wealth of influence the sportspeople have on their communities, more should done to promote corporate reputation and for the “talent” to actively promote their club and build corporate reputation. A social media policy outlining guidelines to encourage this could be of great benefit to the individual, stakeholders and, most importantly, the organisation.

About author

Daniel McLaren
Daniel McLaren 693 posts

Dan McLaren launched Digital Sport (formerly UK Sports Network) back in January 2010 and has worked in the digisport industry with adidas, We Are Social, Copa90 and Pulse amongst others. He's now a freelance social media guy living in the East Midlands and podcast host with the Digital Sport podcast on Audioboom, iTunes and Stitcher Radio.

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