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GB athletes up their game on social media risk

15 December 2014 | 06:09 am

It was fantastic to have the opportunity to run a workshop today for the #ParalympicsGB British Wheelchair Basketball Men’s squad at the home of their National Training Centre in Worcester.

As the countdown to Rio 2016 begins, we were taking time to reflect on lessons from London 2012, which were celebrated at the time as being the ‘social’ games.

However, by the time we hit the opening ceremony in Rio we will have been sharing on social media platforms for nearly a decade! It won't be the new kid on the block as a communications tool, it will be the backbone of fan engagement, and Olympic sponsors will be limbering up to ensure they raise their game and capitalise on the opportunity.

And what an opportunity it will be….the growth of social media has accelerated dramatically over the past 12 months. Government statistics shows that at least 76% of the UK’s adult population access the internet almost every single day, of which three quarters are registered on social media platforms. There are no age barriers, in fact the silver surfers are some of the fastest growing profiles of 2014 – and even the Queen took to Twitter for the first time this year.

And apparently just shy of 60% of the population access the internet on the move via their mobile phone, in fact 23% of smartphone users have said they can't even remember the last time they were separated from their smartphone. That means more content is being captured and shared instantaneously, and the potential to connect with people on a larger scale is much greater.

The maturity of social media has great potential for British Sport and of course GB squads as a collective, but also poses great risk for the athletes, teams and national governing bodies on the road to Rio. Which is why it is great to see National Governing Bodies like British Wheelchair Basketball leading by example in getting their social media game plan in place in good time to maximise the opportunity ahead.

TeamGB Men's British Wheelchair Basketball British Wheelchair Basketball - GB Men's Squad get ready for shirt signing


What are the top 6 risks in social media for GB athletes as they prepare for Rio? 

  1. Security breaches: We have already experienced the likes of celebrities being targeted by hackers on Whats App. Any athlete that is in the spotlight is at risk of being targeted by those keen to gain control of followers – this isn’t just on social media but also in the digital environment more generally.  The Isis attack on a West Yorkshire Rugby Club highlighted just how vulnerable sport is where security is concerned.
  2. Personal Reputation: Knowing when to remain tight lipped and refrain can be a challenge for athletes, especially when they are being challenged to open up and share personal opinions and views on life. Perhaps reassuring that even MPs can get it wrong, with the case of Emily Thorburry and her now famous 'White Van' Tweet ending badly, despite her numerous ill fated attempts to put the record straight and explain what she meant to the media and public at large.
  3. Fan accounts: The athlete has limited control over what appears on a fan account but often the content can reflects on the athlete and their personal brand. We saw great examples of this during the world cup with footballing fans sometimes throwing their own curve ball when it came to commentary, with profanity and challenging behaviour littering pages heavily promoted by sponsors such as the Suarez Facebook Fan page. Even local sports clubs, with regular weekend fixtures are reporting major issues with fan capture of content front the sidelines, leading in some cases to bullying and threats to the opposition (or referee) when a decision/ tackle or refs decisions goes against them. Armed with the photographic evidence, they use social media to stir up emotion more widely than simply those at the fixture and can go viral.
  4. Trolling: There have been very high profile cases of athletes being distracted during competition when the comments get so personal that the athlete finds it hard to ignore. High profile cases have included both Winter and Summer Games, with the first public awareness of the issue centred on Tom Daley at London 2012. But sadly, this was mirrored at the Winter Games when short track speed skater Elise Christie became the target of threats following her disqualification from the 500m race at the Sochi Winter Games. Despite the laws tightening up on trolling this is still a very grey and challenging area to resolve. Often, the accounts are fictitious and hard to trace, with the added complication of the platforms being located overseas outside the jurisdiction of UK law.
  5. Ambush: In the era of ‘selfie’ it is hard for athletes not to accommodate requests but it is always a challenge for them to know who they may be sharing the picture frame with. An athlete provides 'money can't buy' content to tweet that can be as powerful as a product endorsement and for this reason a number of events have banned photos and/or athletes from taking selfies.  Golf lovers at the Ryder Cup were warned that they would even have their phones confiscated if they tried. But with 'wearable' technology just around the corner in early 2015, the ability to police is going to become even more challenging as we head into Rio.
  6. Endorsements: Athletes are much more accessible as a result of social media. With twitter @names and fan pages available at the click of a tweet, athletes are reporting being inundated with some well meaning charities asking for RT's, public 'peer pressure' style invitations and of course suffer backlash if they are seen not to co-operate.  However, the right to say no is just as much a right in the virtual world as it would be if they phoned to ask in person, so athletes need to be given the confidence that they can't and shouldn't be emotionally blackmailed into response.  However, where an athlete is willingly trying to promote a sponsor,  the athlete must make it very clear that it is a sponsored endorsement or could land themselves in hot water legally.

So in response to the risks, we would advise all athletes to take time over Christmas to update their social media channels. Get savvy with passwords, make them challenging to break and change them ever 3 months. Clean up and clear out fans from 'personal family spaces' like personal Facebook pages by politely asking them to move over to fan pages and have a good long think about how the channels will be used on the run up to Rio to drive interest and value.

Michelle Leavesley @leavesm - Marketing Director @CrowdControlHQ, Lecturer in MSc Marketing Communications at Birmingham Business School 

Follow @BritWheelBBall on twitter

CrowdControlHQ is the UK's leading social media risk management platform. Our software supported TeamGB athletes at London2012 and is used today by a number of sports bodies across the UK to protect reputation and engage the public. 



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