As another footballer hits the headlines for inappropriate comments on Twitter (this time it’s Ashley Cole venting his anger at the FA over the John Terry racism row), the debate around banning high profile sports stars from using social media rages on.

Following this latest incident, the FA announced yesterday that it plans to include social media in its overall code of conduct. Alex Horne, General Secretary of the FA, emphasised that clubs need to support players in understanding social media policies set by both the FA and their individual clubs.

Having a social media policy in place is a first step to safeguarding any organisation against the risks posed by employees interacting online, but are football clubs taking the next most important step? Up-skilling and educating is KEY to the success of any social media policy to not only prevent misuse/mitigate the risks but to also maximise the huge opportunities that players using social media can bring.

The case for NOT banning players from using social media

As engagement advocates, we are firmly in the camp of NOT banning players from using social media to engage with fans and others online. We work with commercial and public sector organisations day in day out, educating them on the power of and the positive benefits of using social media, how opportunities can be maximised and risks avoided. A hugely important part of this is getting employees onboard – up skilling them in the use of social media and how it can bring real benefits for professional development and brand enhancement – after all, people prefer to engage with people not brands. Why are footballers, cricket players or athletes any different? Sport is a BIG business and investing in the communication skills of its key ambassadors should be a priority.

Maximising the opportunities and minimising the risk of sports stars using social media

Social media platforms such as Twitter mean that sporting celebrities can connect with fans like never before in a positive and inspirational way. Take the Team GB 2012 Olympians for example. Fans from all walks of life can now follow athletes like Jessica Ennis (@J_Ennis) and get a little bit of insight into the real people behind the gold medals. This is a really effective way of continuing the post Olympics ‘high’ that the country experienced – something that the Team GB brand is so keen to sustain.

The negative connotations around footballers using Twitter derive from the high profile stories in the press. These gaffes demonstrate footballers (who are supposed to be positive role models with media training!) using social media in a negative, offensive and inappropriate way – swiftly followed by calls from managers, the FA and others for them to be banned from tweeting and indeed playing.

In the wake of the John Terry case, York City defender and Professional Footballers Association (@PFA) Chairman Clarke Carlisle has been a strong ambassador for tackling racism in football. If you follow him on Twitter (@clarkecarlisle5) it’s clear to see that he takes a very sensible approach to how he communicates his thoughts and opinions, sensitively and sensibly responding to strong reactions from fans and followers. Footballers interacting on Twitter can learn a lot from Clarke’s approach to positive, intelligent and engaging tweeting. But it’s really no different from what they do in the ‘real world’ – they are in the public eye and should behave appropriately, whether online or offline.

Off the pitch training in social media and online personal branding

I question what guidelines have been set by football clubs on the use of social media. Do the players have a policy and are they clear on the parameters in which they are allowed to ‘play’ when it comes to interacting publicly online on platforms like Twitter?  The FA says yes, but is this policy sat in a drawer as a tick box exercise rather than being ingrained into the culture of the club? This is a classic situation that we have encountered a number of times with our clients. The senior management team devises an all singing, all dancing policy but ‘on the ground’ none of its employees are bought into it or have the skills to use if effectively – and this is where the process falls down.

Footballers, particularly high profile players, are constantly under pressure to position themselves as positive role models and social media gives them the perfect vehicle in which to do this on their own terms. Clubs need to embrace the opportunities by providing sensible guidelines that are pitched at the right level and most importantly practical support to players that doesn’t just focus on what ‘not to do’ but that highlights the positive ways in which social media can enhance the club and the players’ online personal brand and reputation.

What do you think? Are sports stars being given the right social media training and guidelines?

If you are a sports agent or club and want to learn more about developing a social media policy and training/supporting your employees/players with using social media, engage with us now.