The Branding Games: London 2012 and Social Control

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Social Network JugglingThe International Olympic Committee has a problem. Their problem is, practically everyone in the world is going to be tweeting about their product.

Sounds like a good problem to have, right? Everyone in your office would probably do back flips if your company started simultaneously trending in 200 different countries around the world. A lot of marketing directors spend their entire careers trying to get even 1% of that kind of popularity for their brands.

But social media success is a double-edged sword. It brings a wealth of marketing strength, sure, but it also represents a huge loss of control. You control what you say about yourself, of course, but you can’t control what other people will say about you. The good, the bad, the hopelessly neutral; it all flows freely from your fans and followers, and the more people who post about you company, the less you can respond to a huge influx of negative tweets. If one person takes to Twitter to complain about your product, you can respond and attempt to correct the situation. If 1,000 people start complaining, the situation is way beyond your management. Now consider; the number of Olympic athletes alone is about 17,000. That doesn’t include managers or trainers or sponsors, and it certainly doesn’t include the masses of people who will be watching (and Facebooking, and tweeting, and Google Plusing) around the world.

In short, the potential for Olympic brand negativity is astronomical.

In the face of this, the IOC, like any company hoping to protect its brand, has two basic options; either hold your breath and hope for the best, or try to implement as many regulatory guidelines as you can before the tweeting starts. The IOC chose the latter. (You can download the complete guidelines here.)

The IOC can’t impose regulations on the public, of course, but all Olympic athletes are expected to abide by them. And although the IOC does encourage social media usage, their list of prohibitions is pretty specific and fairly extensive. The IOC is taking quite a bit of criticism over these social media guidelines, especially from athletes, some of whom are complaining that the regulations put them in digital handcuffs for the duration of the games. The IOC has been a little unclear about how (or even if) they plan on actively enforcing the social media restrictions, but the fact that they crafted and published the list of guidelines leaves no room for doubt; the Olympic brand is hugely valuable, and they want to take every precaution to protect it.

So what does this have to do with you? Well, believe it or not, the IOC’s problems are your company’s problems, too. Regardless of how much or how little your company uses social media, there are digital conversations happening about your brand; and no matter how many or how few resources you expend trying to manage those conversations, you’ll never be able to control them. But your brand is just as important to you as the Olympic brand is to the IOC, right? So which tactic are you using? Holding your breath and hoping for the best, or implementing whatever guidelines as you can?

Despite the flack the IOC is getting for instituting these regulations, the move is anything but uncommon. A lot of companies create and enforce social media policies for their organizations. In fact, most social media strategists and consultants encourage their clients to do the same. A good social media policy not only sets forth regulations and guidelines about what employees should or should not say about the company, but it also sets the tone for all future social media strategies and lays out a communications and community-building plan for the company’s social media managers. In other words, a good policy helps to both protect and enhance the brand.

Of course, there are some obvious differences between the IOC’s situation and yours. Even if you work for a global corporation, odds are your overall social universe is smaller in scope than the IOC’s is likely to be. Also, Olympic athletes aren’t exactly IOC employees, though they do actively represent the organization and the Olympic brand. The Olympics last a couple of weeks every two years, and your social network concerns are active year-round.

But despite these differences, you both have a social brand to maintain, and the open nature of social networks can make it extremely difficult to do that effectively. There is so much that’s beyond your control when it comes to social media…what people say, how often they say it, who they say it to…that it’s simply not possible to control the conversations about your brand.

But you can try to mitigate negativity from within your own company. And even though the IOC is facing a lot of criticism for taking proactive measures against this type of internal social turmoil, isn’t that the least we should all be doing for our brands?

If there’s one thing you take away from the flurry of stories about the IOC’s social media policy, I hope that it isn’t, “This whole guideline thing is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.” Instead, I hope you take away the knowledge that a social media policy for your company may indeed draw some internal criticism, and it’s important to be prepared for that. But if you prepare your policy well (and with both the good of your brand and your employees in mind), you’ll see distinct benefits in taking proactive steps to protect your brand as best as you are able.

And if the potential of criticism seems a little daunting? Don’t worry about it too much. There’s one more important difference between your company and the IOC. If you ever do have to justify your own policy, it’ll be to your employees, and maybe your stockholders, but odds are you will not be confronted by the major news networks of 100 different countries. That should help you breathe a little easier.

What are your thoughts on the IOC’s social media policy? Is it too strict? Not strict enough? Should it exist at all? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Let us know in the comments below!

 

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