Rich Gotham had it right. The Boston Celtics president had joined the team’s public relations staff and me on a conference call to discuss the preseason team media training session I would be conducting. When the conversation turned to Twitter, Gotham provided very specific guidance.
“Tell the players, ‘If you’re going to tweet, tweet with a purpose.’”
Gotham wanted to help the Celtics avoid the self-inflicted Twitter turnovers that can distract a team or even hurt the club on the court. Careless use of social media has resulted in fines (Brandon Jennings of the Bucks) and suspensions (White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen), players being benched (former Jets wide receiver David Clowney, now with the Panthers) and even waived (former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson).
Public apologies following ill-advised tweets are a regular occurrence. Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall recently expressed regret after his controversial tweets about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Mendenhall tried to clarify his intent, but the damage was done, and Champion terminated his endorsement contract.
Players get accustomed to the informality of the 140-character world and forget, as Saints coach Sean Payton told his team, every tweet “is a one-minute press conference.” In other words, if you wouldn’t say it in front of a room full of reporters and cameras, don’t tweet it.
But for all the headlines devoted to those who tweet their way into trouble, there are plenty of pro athletes who, as Gotham suggests, tweet with a purpose — and that purpose is to effectively connect with the public in a way that reflects favorably on the player, team and league.
Fans crave a connection with their favorite players. A survey of MLB and NFL fans conducted last year by Catalyst Public Relations in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal revealed “three-quarters of fans want athletes to engage with them directly through social media.”
Prior to Twitter there was no way for the masses to make this connection, described by SportsFanLive CEO David Katz as an “unvarnished, authentic glimpse into the lives of these athletes that we follow on TV and watch in the games.”
The survey also found that “fans who connect with the leagues through social-media sites say they are more avid fans of the leagues now than they were prior to the advent of such sites.”
The Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire asked for Twitter fans’ opinions on his footwear. In other words, athletes on Twitter can be good for business — as long as they tweet with a purpose.
Here are my three keys for using Twitter to forge a productive connection with fans, sponsors and, just as importantly, potential fans and sponsors:
• Engage with your followers.
Twitter at its best is a dialogue. There are many ways to accomplish this. Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudamire (@Amareisreal) polled his followers on which model of Nike shoes he should wear. Trivia contests for prizes and tickets can work well. Jaguars linebacker Kirk Morrison (@kirkmorrison55) allowed his followers to vote on which T-shirt he wore every day during training camp. The Yankees’ Nick Swisher (@nickswisher) — the only MLB player with more than a million followers — and Matt Duchene (@Matt9Duchene) of the Colorado Avalanche are among those who retweet messages from their followers on request.
• Be insightful and entertaining.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) regularly gives his followers behind-the-scenes glimpses of life with the Rays. Recently Maddon tweeted, “One of our mottos is ‘we catch line drives.’ The sophistication of putting guys in the right spots on the field is big for us.” Without breaking news or spilling secrets from the playbook, there are plenty of ways to bring Twitter followers inside the team. New York Giants tight end Kevin Boss (@KevinBossman) gets this. One memorable tweet from training camp made it clear just how hard Boss was working: “Getting mentally prepared for my Saturday sled workout … pulling a 60lb sled for 30yds 50x’s.” While comedy on Twitter is a high-wire act best left to @danecook, @chrisrock and the professionals, players should use their natural personalities and make sure they are fun to follow. Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson (@str8edgeracer) strikes the right balance. Sharing photos is a nice touch.
• Put a spotlight on community service.
Tampa captain tweets about charitable causes. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier (@VLecavalier4) is among the athletes who do a nice job promoting charitable causes. A bonus is that it often puts athletes in a state of gratitude and humility, two surefire ways (especially coming out of a recession) to forge a bond. And thanking the fans for their support never gets old.
The added value of Twitter is that players can build their personal brands, and enhance their team brands, as syndicators of their own content. They can push out material the media wouldn’t normally be covering. And they can counterprogram when needed.
For example, when the Saints’ Reggie Bush (@reggie_bush) was in the news for returning his Heisman Trophy, he was able to post his own commentary on the subject in addition to alternate, positive story lines. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (@Mark_Sanchez) was a one-man wire service during the recent “Jets West” workouts — given the added significance of the NFL lockout — sending his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers to his Facebook page for videos and images from the workouts in California.
Shaquille O’Neal, Lance Armstrong and Steve Nash have earned a spot on the Mount Rushmore of sports tweeting. The fourth name could be PGA Tour pro Stewart Cink (@stewartcink), a fun and insightful follow. But the vote here is for Saints quarterback Drew Brees (@drewbrees), who hits all the right notes. He engages with his nearly 500,000 followers (up from 5,100 two years ago) by regularly hitting a few key themes: Gratitude to the fans, his dedication to improving on the field, giving credit to his teammates and coaches, his off-the-field work with his Brees Dream Foundation and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and occasional, and often funny, personal touches about his family. He does it all — and always with a purpose.
Kevin Sullivan (firstname.lastname@example.org) founded Kevin Sullivan Communications after serving as White House communications director and as a public relations executive at NBC Universal and the Dallas Mavericks. Follow him on Twitter @KSullie.