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SBD/Issue 221/SportsBusiness Daily Exclusives
ESPN.com's Rob King Discusses Guidelines For Use Of Social Media
Published August 5, 2009
|Rob King Discusses ESPN's Social-
Networking Guidelines For Employees
SBD: Walk us through ESPN’s decision and the reasons behind it.
Rob King: We really felt we were at a point, like other large media companies, where we would help folks understand how we would play in this social networking space. If you follow things that have been happening on ESPN.com recently, you’ve seen ways in which we’ve really tried to embrace Twitter, in particular, as a means to providing content in real time for live events. We think there’s a real opportunity to give folks a real sense of who we are as fans. Whether it’s me saying that I’m a fan of the Script W, which is my code for the Washington Nationals, that’s an opportunity to show people a side of who we are as news gatherers and as sports fans in keeping with what everything that ESPN is about.
It’s an important opportunity to reiterate to folks that this technology is the equivalent of a live microphone. In that respect, it should be treated with some measure of awareness about how it represents those individuals who are forward-facing talent and how it represents how ESPN wants to connect with the audience. There’s a lot of education that goes along with it. Anyone who’s ever had a tweet re-tweeted to an audience knows that it can be presented in ways that you might never have understood or intended when you originally articulated those 140 characters.
SBD: How does ESPN expect to work with Twitter?
King: When Henry Abbott’s tweets were being posted right near True Hoop during the NBA Finals, we were making something of a statement about how we view this as a real valuable opportunity to engage with fans live. We did a pretty big experiment for the WNBA All-Star Game where we used a third-party software called Coveritlive to bring tweets and emails and chats and conversation technology all together to give folks a different glimpse of that game. Swin Cash was tweeting, and she happened to be the MVP. Rebecca Lobo was tweeting and she was named to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame at halftime. You had coaches, Nancy Lieberman, Donna Orender -- you had all these people engaged in real-time that is making the most of what the technology can do.
SBD: Who drove this?
King: It was a combination of folks who are involved in editorial decisions, folks who are viewing things from a PR perspective. Certainly questions from talent drove this conversation. It’s obviously such a big part of how human beings are communicating now that there were a lot of people who were engaged in this.
It’s a really important moment in time for us. We gathered a group of people across a lot of different disciplines at ESPN. We spent a lot of time with good and vigorous and lively debate in some cases, with an intent on trying to figure out how best to embrace the space, while at the same time making people aware of how we hope to use it to connect with fans in a way that they really have come to expect. Just as in the case with every other major media entity, or even the smaller media entities and individuals, there are specific things about Twitter or Facebook that you want to learn about in a harmless way. I’m sure there are many people who would never dream that their personal photographs on Facebook would show up on ads. But that’s part of a reality that people have had to educate themselves with. We’re committed to be in the space, but be in a space that’s really constructive and consistent.
SBD: Does the policy affect all ESPN employees, or just the on-air talent and reporters?
King: The discussion that began last night was based largely on a policy that was specifically for forward-facing talent. But it is fair to say that we are actively looking at how to address this for everybody who works for the company because it’s as much a part of our company’s core principles about who we are and how we communicate with our fans, business partners, our clients and each other.
SBD: Have you ever tweeted anything that you’ve regretted?
King: I don’t think so. (pause).
SBD: Let me ask that another way. What’s out there that made you raise an eyebrow?
King: I can think of cases in which folks have re-tweeted breaking news that turned out not to be true. Some day somebody’s going to get sued somewhere for re-tweeting something that is false. That’s part of a great IQ test that represents the introduction to social media. That’s just from a journalistic perspective, one that has to be taught and managed very carefully. I don’t know which media company is going to run into it. But some day, somebody’s probably going to find themselves in a court of law. That was in no way a line of thought that drove this conversation. But if you’re asking me, personally, sometimes I see folks re-tweeting stuff that is essentially breaking news without really a sense of the sourcing. It runs counter to the journalistic training that folks ingrained in me.
SBD: It sounds like you trying to bring some journalistic ethics to Twitter.
King: It’s a lot easier to say something like that than to really do it. I don’t know that anybody’s ever sat down and called Twitter a journalistic enterprise. But it’s certainly a means to communicating news to folks. Last night, Paula Abdul decided to tell the world that she wasn’t going to be on “American Idol.” In some circles that’s news. That caught like wildfire, too.
It’s important for people who have a relationship with an audience as journalists, to be mindful that regardless of the format you’re using, that’s a relationship you have. I’m happy to say we have a ton of people who get that naturally. The question is how you can make sure from the wide array of voices, that you maintain some higher level of trust. That wasn’t the substance of why we did it. But I’d be lying to you if didn’t tell you that it’s going to continue to be a factor as this whole thing evolves.
King Says On-Air Talent Tweets Will Be Used
To Prompt Readers To Full Reports, Stories
King: We believe that issuing the guidelines is going to start the right kinds of conversations. Folks who out in the field, like Mort or Rachel Nichols, will ask questions, and we will provide that guidance. Great example today of Rachel doing something simple that was well within the guidelines. She told people that she was at the Jets camp watching the guys get ready for work. There will be a full report on “SportsCenter” tonight.
When you’re Mark Stein out there digging for news at the rookie leagues, he’s getting stuff on free agent deals and communicating with our desk and getting a link and then busting it out on Twitter and putting the link to where you can read the full story. Our folks get that.
When you are Chris Mortenson and you are doing the “Mort Report,” which is a very popular and different sort of “SportsCenter” execution, you have a great opportunity every time you do some sort of tweet to make sure people know where they can find out more about it.
Will it evolve? Sure. It’s all about our communicating constantly with our folks about where the opportunities lie.
SBD: A lot of people view Twitter as a good place to break news that won’t hold. Are you worried that your guideline will cause ESPN to lose some scoops that others are able to post faster on Twitter?
King: When it really comes down to fretting over 140 characters, I’d sooner make sure that I’ve got the right number of words to tell the story as well and as accurately as possible then fret about whether my 140 characters get out into the digital space first.
You have a blogger at a training camp somewhere, and all they want to do is, say ‘Jay Cutler looked pretty sharp and completed three passes in practice.’ That would never be a headline or a story on ESPN.com. That’s not what we call breaking news. I don’t think that’s something that we would call ourselves ‘scooped’ on. That’s why we’re in the business of the blogs. That’s part of the on-going expectation of communication and contact with the audience.
My earlier examples of Henry Abbott and the WNBA -- these are real, live tests that are telling us how our technology is going to work as we bust out modules throughout ESPN.com that enable the simultaneous publishing of somebody who’s tweeting. Right now, we’ve got the ability in many cases to tweet and include links and send people to the site. There’s also some great excitement about the opportunity to do stuff live and in real time and have it appear on ESPN.com and on Twitter and on Facebook. It’s like the deal we struck with YouTube. We want to go to where the audience is. As I tweeted last night, I believe good outcomes can come through evolution, not revolution. This is going to be an evolutionary process.
SBD: Is there a concern that you were sending too much traffic to Twitter at the expense of ESPN?
King: No. The audiences are very different. That did not come up at all in any of our conversations.
SBD: Explain ESPN’s ban on personal Web sites. Does that mean that someone like Jeremy Schapp can’t operate a Web site?
King: I hate the word ‘ban.’ The guideline on the personal Web site is that they should not be representing sports content at all. If Jeremy Schapp wants to have a Web site that has no sports content on it whatsoever, I think that’s fine. We felt like our forward-facing talent’s relationship with the audience happens through ESPN media. We wanted to reiterate that’s the relationship we expect as long as people are part of the company.