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USMC and ESPN Doing it Wrong or are We Just Quick to Judge?

Posted by on August 8, 2009


You may have heard recently that the USMC and ESPN have really come down hard on social networking sites.  The USMC banned the use of social networks entirely and ESPN has implemented extremely strict guidelines that focus mainly on helping ESPN:

The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content”

There has been a lot of discussion around the USMC/ESPN move and a lot of people are taking aim at these organizations criticizing them and telling them they are “doing it wrong.”  Olivier Blanchard actually just wrote a post criticizing the USMC and ESPN for doing it wrong while praising IBM for doing it right.  This post isn’t meant to talk about who is doing anything right or wrong it’s meant to address our tendency to judge quickly.

The people at the USMC and at ESPN are not idiots…are they?  They understand their business and their organization and they understand what works best for them.  It’s easy for us to criticize and tell companies that they are not using social media properly, but without really understanding their business and how they operate, our criticisms really have no merit.

The USMC, ESPN, and IBM are VERY different organizations, why should we expect them all to adopt similar social media policies and guidelines?  People are saying that the USMC ban was too strict, but you know what, at the end of they day when there’s a possibility that people’s live are at stake or that we can somehow jeopardize our soldiers at war, then guess what, the ban does make sense.  Are there other alternatives?  Probably, but in this case the risk is extremely high.  The USMC doesn’t just ban things for fun, I’m sure they thought long and hard about this and just determined that the security threats are not worth the risk.  Again, I could be completely wrong here but the point is that we need to understand why these decisions were made and how these organizations operate.

ESPN didn’t outright ban the use of social networks completely but they did make a few bold statements such as this one:

“Personal websites and blogs that contain sports content are not permitted”

Sounds pretty harsh and at first read it makes you want to say, “wow ESPN, you guys are idiots.”  However, I think the more important thing to look at is why this decision was made.  It’s tough to agree or disagree with such policies without really understanding what’s going on internally.

  • Have employees divulged some sort of sports secrets when they weren’t supposed to?
  • Has their been any company/brand reputation damage done to ESPN because of someone else’s personal blog?
  • How is ESPN going to monitor and track everyone else’s blog?
  • Have sales somehow been drastically affected because of personal blogs or websites?

Again, I’m not saying that anyone of the above justifies what ESPN has done, but we really need to understand why these decisions were made and what the goals of those decisions are.

IBM has been praised for having a great social media policy, and I agree, it is a great policy; but that’s what works for IBM.

I don’t think that telling companies that they “are doing it wrong” is going to help anyone.  Perhaps it’s also up to the companies to clearly explain why they are implementing the policies that they are, but it’s also our responsibility as marketers to not be so quick to judge and criticize.  We need to understand what’s going on internally within an organization and why certain decisions are made.

What are your thoughts on this?

  • Thanks for the mention, Jacob.

    You are correct: At the core of this debate is culture. Some companies still believe that they can impose artificial measures of control over their staff's thoughts, beliefs and activities outside of business hours, while others believe that the people in their employ are capable of acting like responsible adults even when not micromanaged by overreaching corporate rules. (Poorly written rules at that.)

    As it turns out, IBM's model of training their staff and explaining in detail the what and how and why of social media behavior works extremely well. ESPN, on the other hand, reacted bizarrely to incidents of unprofessionalism that actually have little to do with social media. Social Media didn't cause the problem of staffers leaking information an criticizing colleagues, it only brought it to light. By banning the use of social media and restricting its use even outside of work, ESPN doesn't stop the behavior, it just lashes out in an ill-conceived attempt to protect itself. Sadly, the result is a PR black eye and a stable of employees scratching their heads, not understanding clearly what they can or can't talk about on blogs in their own time. Not to mention the fact that ESPN effectively killed its social media program by turning SNS into little more than broadcast channels. As an employee of ESPN, would I even know if I am allowed to praise ESPN on Twitter at this point? More to the point, would I want to anymore?

    ESPN could have looked at the problem this way: The medium is not the problem. Access to the medium is not the problem. Therefore, banning or restricting the use of the medium will not fix the problem. The problem, Jacob, is a behavior. A behavior already covered in the employee handbook: ESPN staffers leaking confidential information, commenting in public about topics their contracts prohibit them from commenting about, etc. This was a bad move on their part.

    What does this tell me? It tells me that ESPN didn't understand the problem and made a bad decision. My post is really about the impact that knowledge has on decision-making: When a problem is clearly understood and knowledgeable people are brought in to find a solution, good things happen. Conversely, when a problem is wrongly diagnosed and the variables are not clearly understood, bad decisions are made. As stated in my post, “the best antidote to fear is knowledge.” ESPN seemed to be a little short on knowledge last week. Hopefully, that will change over time. 🙂

    Thanks for continuing the discussion, Jacob.

    PS: To be fair to the USMC, one detail that seems to fade from the convo is that the SNS ban is not across the board. It specifically addresses access of SNS on its NIPRNET network. The USMC doesn't ban its soldiers from using SNS outside the wire. That is a distinction that even I probably didn't do a good enough job of explaining in my post.

  • I'm glad someone said it… criticizing any organization (especially our military) which fuctions on discrepancy and undisclosed, tactical procedures is very immature in my book. Sorry that you can't find out exactly where our troops are at every second, but if you knew, so would our enemies… and then where would we be?

    As far as ESPN goes, this is actually the first I've heard about it. Interesting situation, though. I guess since they already operate on user and viewer feedback, they felt that any uncontrolled, free-verse conversation might knock a few bolts loose?

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