With the increase in social media use in sport, there has also been a dramatic change in the nature of the relationship between athletes and their fans. Social media has closed the gap between fans and athletes and opened up a direct channel of communication. In the words of Eric Adelson:
‘A retweet from a sports star is the new autograph, accessible (at least in theory) to a fan who can’t get anywhere near a game’.
The question we now have to ask as PR practitioners, is how do we ensure that the new channel of communication fosters a positive conversation?
Players, as well as coaches, now have personal social media accounts, which not only promote themselves as a person, but also their brand and their club. Social media now provides easy access for fans, essentially humanising the athlete and facilitating a conversation like never before. This provides a PR opportunity to engage with fans and foster communication, boosting their popularity and consequentially, their brand. As Nick Marvin states, ‘Fans feel exclusive, special, when sporting administrators communicate with them in social networks’.
A prime example of a club using social media to directly communicate with their fans can be seen in the case of the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team. Here, the team answered the question ‘who better to engage the club’s fans on social media than themselves?’
Although social media often has a positive affect, it also provides easy access for those who are not fans of the particular athlete, and allows them to target them in a way that lets the whole world see. There is also the possibility that an athlete might wander into dangerous territory though promoting their sponsor’s products and/or services. If a fan perceives the athletes posts to be scripted or constructed, this could lead to a backlash, and a distrust of the athlete and the brand.
In order to avoid the negative effects of social media, PR practitioners need to ensure they have strategies in place, as outlined by Sports Geek, as Sean Callanan. To allow positive conversation to thrive, they need to ensure players only post genuine and appropriate content. As for negative comments from fans, they can only monitor those and endeavour to respond in a efficient and effective way which minimises the potential impact.