Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 10
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Firm tailors social media training to sports

She rattled off a growing list of social media mishaps, mixing in samples from across sports.

There was the Ohio State football player who memorably tweeted that his classes were “pointless.” The former PGA of America president who was ousted after tweeting that a player had behaved like a “little girl.” The Houston Rockets social media manager who was fired for celebrating the team’s elimination of the rival Dallas Mavericks by posting emojis of a gun pointed at a horse.

And then there was the poster child for social media miscreants everywhere: The latest athlete to feel compelled to snap a selfie of his junk.

“Social media is like a 747, and it’s cruising along on auto pilot,” said Carrie Gerlach Cecil, the longtime communications firm owner who in recent years has found herself counseling an increasing number of clients who struggled to adjust to the impact of Twitter and Facebook. “There it is, cruising along, with the team, the sponsors, the coaches, the advertisers — all their careers, all their money, all they’ve ever worked for — it’s all on the 747. And then, guess what? Auto pilot goes off, and one of your athletes gets to land you. And you have done nothing to train him.

“That’s the reality of social media in sports. I mean, that’s scary.”

Carrie Gerlach Cecil of Social Media Sports Management, with former NFL linebacker Will Witherspoon (below).
Photo by: SM2
It is behind that message that Cecil this week will launch Social Media Sports Management, a startup venture that will offer social media strategy, education and training customized for athletes and employees across college and pro sports.

Marketing itself as SM2, the company will offer a range of services, including assessment, policy advice, content moderation and social media marketing, adapted for sports from a review of best practices at Fortune 500 companies. But the cornerstone of its launch is a cloud-based learning system that allows for customized training delivered through educational videos that last from two to eight minutes each.

The entire college athletics course takes 53 minutes to complete, covering topics such as the limits of free speech protection, the illusion of privacy, code of conduct, digital rights and the damage a hacker can do. Course progress can be monitored, with certification delivered after completion.

Unlike similar training created for the corporate world, SM2’s courses are designed to address

issues arising in sports and the social media policies of leagues, teams and schools. Curriculum varies, not only from college to pro sports, but from sport to sport, based on the policies and issues that are germane to each property. The company designed each course with the help of advisers working in that sport.

SM2 opens its doors with three signed clients: The athletic departments at Auburn and TCU and the St. Louis Rams. It is in talks with five other universities, two speedways and a players association, Cecil said.

“As social media evolved, we as users didn’t get trained to evolve with it,” said Cecil, who will be in Orlando this week for presentations at the annual convention of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. “We still engage on social media as if we’re talking to our best friend, not to a billion people. The impacts can be both life changing and career changing, just from a handful of keystrokes.

“When you look at traditional risk management, it wasn’t designed for minute-by-minute chatter.”

It’s not as if schools and teams aren’t paying attention to this issue already. It’s standard for them to talk to athletes about social media at the start of a school year or season. Some bring in guest speakers to address the topic. Most assign a staff member to monitor the social feeds of their athletes.

One of the hurdles SM2 will face is the acceptance that properties need to do more. Pro teams can be limited in the sway they hold over their players. College programs must be convinced that the training is worth the expense, which typically is in the mid five figures annually, Cecil said.

“The people in these programs have an idea of what’s going on in social media, but unfortunately too often they don’t really dig in until something bad happens,” said Jim Livengood, a former athletic director at UNLV and Arizona who sits on SM2’s advisory board. “I love coaches but getting them to commit resources to something that does not have a direct correlation to helping them with Ws and Ls can be hard. This isn’t going away. It’s only going to expand. So you have to get coaches and staff to understand that this amount of training is going to be worth it in terms of protection.”

The athletic director at the first school to sign on with SM2 said that wasn’t a difficult sell.

“All these social media platforms have become a reflection of your personal brand, and they can affect you positively or negatively,” said Chris Del Conte, TCU athletic director. “This is a new frontier. And when there’s a new frontier, it’s my responsibility to educate young people on the positive and negative effects of that.”

Del Conte saw the ramifications of a social media misstep in his own department in 2014 when an assistant AD posted a comment on his Facebook page that was deemed offensive to another Texas school. Soon after, the assistant AD resigned, saying it was “for the betterment of TCU.” Del Conte said that wasn’t a factor in his decision to hire SM2, but it had to raise awareness of the potential dangers.

Cecil landed the Rams as a client in part as a result of a family connection. Her husband, former NFL defensive back Chuck Cecil, coaches the Rams secondary. When she approached Rams coach Jeff Fisher about the training at the NFL meetings earlier this year, she found a receptive ear.

“I’m the one that’s sitting in the office when someone comes in and says, ‘We’ve got a problem here,’” Fisher said. “We’re not opposed to our players participating [in social media]. But they have to be constantly reminded that they are on the record all the time. This is another way for us to be proactive.”