Making Olympic-sized gaffes on social media

July 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Every four years, the Olympics arrive with its outsized baggage to set up camp in a host city, while disrupting the lives of residents, changing the character of entire city precincts, and sucking in attention like only a media sinkhole can.  I should know. I lived in Sydney for and leading up to the Olympic Games in 2000. London appears no different but, interestingly, some aspects ARE different.

For each of these titanic cast-of-thousands, audience-of-millions productions, the actors change but the plot usually remains same. There are the standard stories about athletes passed over for selection, and fears over transport, security, the weather, drug cheating and empty seats.

This year, there’s a new subject that is stalking the games and will continue to shadow it in this new era of personal mobile connectivity.  The first big clue dropped during the men’s cycling road race on day one.

After numerous complaints from television viewers about confused and confusing commentary during the race, it has emerged that the volume of tweets and texts generated by mobile phone using spectators absolutely bamboozled the race organisers’ GPS information that should have accurately logged the progress of individual riders. So much so, that the International Olympic Committee issued a plea to Olympic crowds to ration their tweets and SMS messages during road racing.

Good luck with that. London has been described as the first ‘real’ social media games because of the growth of social media usage in the four years since the Beijing Olympics. The opening ceremony even went out of its way to portray British youth culture as highly connected (did you notice the touch screen props?).

Twitter says there are now more tweets about the Olympics on a single day in a week than the total number of tweets sent during the whole Beijing Olympics.

Social media and the Olympics is a growing new thing – and lessons are being learned that will apply to future games. High profile athletes are endorsing products using social media (and fallen foul of International Olympic Committee guidelines) and many are simply using it to talk directly to their home support. The majority of athletes are of a generation that has integrated social networking into their daily lives.

But for games organisers and team managers, it has become a new scenario for a potential public relations nightmare.

Has anyone warned the athletes? In a word, yes. Every team will have issued guidelines on how to use social media safely and appropriately. The last thing the team managers and communications professionals want is to go into damage control over an errant tweet or Facebook post.

It’s worth a reminder that Facebook only became public in 2006, Twitter broke out in 2007 and China’s weibo platforms only hit the mainstream in 2009.  Today, Facebook has 900 million users (compared with 100 million in 2008), Twitter has 140 million users (six million in 2008) and Sina, China’s most popular micro-blogging network, now has 300 million users.

The International Olympic Committee has issued social media usage guidelines and central to them is this directive:

The IOC encourages participants and other accredited persons to post comments on social media platforms or websites and tweet during the Olympic Games, and it is entirely acceptable for a participant or any other accredited person to do a personal posting, blog or tweet. However, any such postings, blogs or tweets must be in a first-person, diary-type format and should not be in the role of a journalist – i.e. they must not report on competition or comment on the activities of other participants or accredited persons, or disclose any information which is confidential or private in relation to any other person or organisation.

You can find the full document here. If only Hope Solo, Michael Morganella and Voula Papachristou had actually read it.

Morganella is the most recent casualty. In a fit of sour grapes after his team lost to South Korea, he tweeted the Koreans were “mentally handicapped retards”. Don’t bother looking for his Twitter account – it’s no longer available and he’s no longer available for his team’s next game.

Solo, the goalkeeping star of the American women’s football team, used Twitter to pick a public fight with a former United States international player turned commentator, Brandi Chastain, over what she called unfair criticism of the team. It’s become a distraction for her teammates because she’s become the story, not the team.

Papachristou, a Greek triple jumper, found herself going home before the games began for tweeting “with so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat homemade food”. In country where immigration has become a sensitive political issue and non-Greek minorities are under attack from far right groups, her ‘joke’ got her expelled.

Meanwhile, Australian swimmers, Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk, won’t be joining their teammates for the end of games festivities. They’ll be going home after their events – their penalty for posting photos on Facebook of themselves  posing with guns in an American gun shop.

Journalists are also not immune to social media blowback, as happened to Guy Adams, a journalist at The Independent, when he took a tilt at the official American Olympics network, NBC, over its coverage.

All of this simply heightens the need for athletes and anyone involved with the Olympics to take a 360 view of what they intend to post on social media. They must realise their posts can be seen by everyone and anyone. But as we know, common sense can only be learned and not necessarily taught.

To quote George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Like four yearly controversies over empty seats, drug cheats, transport and security, social media is now also an embedded fixture at the Olympics. It is also a guaranteed prospect to win Olympic gold for online gaffes.

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