The Limits of Social Media

Like many of the columnists on this site I view the growth of Social Media as a positive development within sport.

I like the way it brings the ordinary supporter closer to their favourite team or player, the way it allows fans to question some of the big-hitters in the media and also the opportunities it offers clubs and organisations to develop their brands and eventually open up new revenue streams.

But before we all run off and set ourselves up as Social Media consultants it’s worth considering the limitations of the medium.

While calls for openness and accountability all sound good in theory we have to appreciate the reasons some clubs are reluctant to get involved. To us it may seem negative and secretive, to them it’s just good business practice.

The Social Media standard bearers in the Premier League have been Manchester City. With the backing of their mega-rich owners they have reached out to fans like no other with Twitter, Facebook and Flickr feeds all helping City fans feel part of the club.

And by linking these feeds, plus adding supporters’ blogs, back to their impressive new website they are doing everything that any self-respecting Social Media expert would tell them to do.

But they still own the message and they are the ones who decide what to publish.

For example when Mark Hughes was sacked by the club in December last year, for obvious reasons the club’s Twitter feed put out the official announcement and refused to respond to questions from fans.

It’s the same at the FA who, to their credit, have been increasing their involvement in Social Media in the past year.

The two biggest stories to come out of Wembley in the last two months have been the sacking of John Terry as England captain and the resignation of chief executive Ian Watmore.

On each occasion an organisation which insists it is trying to engage with its audience slipped back to the traditional media stance of putting out a brief statement and then staying quiet.

It’s an approach which is eminently sensible and in the same position I’d probably do the same. Which to me proves that the dreams of the Social Media evangelists will never be met in the real world.

When I first started in journalism, which is not that long ago, some clubs would routinely give you the mobile phone numbers of their players if you wanted to do a quick interview with them. You’d also be guaranteed an interview if you went up to the training ground on a given day.

It’s very different now with all media activity around most clubs tightly controlled. So after winning this battle, it’s clear why clubs are unwilling to get fully engaged in Social Media. Most treat it with suspicion and only pay lip-service to it.

They also resent their players having their own accounts fearing some will go off message and will use any excuse to stop their players Tweeting.

Darren Bent was forced to stop his hugely popular Twitter feed because Sunderland had lost a few games. It was claimed Twitter was somehow distracting him from doing his job. It should be noted that Bent never tweeted from either the pitch or the dressing room!

But again it’s quite easy to see the sense behind this stance when you see what happens every time a player makes a slightly controversial comment on their feed. The remark gets re-tweeted across Twitter and then finds its way into the papers, usually with a less-than-flattering headline.

When clubs continually strive to control the message and make sure nothing is printed which could upset the morale in the dressing room, why would they tolerate loose cannons?

Again, I am a big fan on Social Media and wish football club especially would use it more and engage with their fans. But there are good reasons why they don’t.

And until we realise this and appreciate where they are coming from the medium will remain predominantly a place for fans to chat rather the place where real conversations and interactions could take place.

About author

Mark Segal
Mark Segal 7 posts

Mark is a journalist and online editor at ITV.com with over 10 years experience working for national media outlets. Recently wrote for FC Business Magazine on twitter in sport. You can follow him on @segalmark

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