When will they learn? Social media is not about you. It’s about them. And poorly planned and executed hashtag campaigns that fail, prove it every time. The latest example? The NFL’s Washington Redskins and its brief #RedskinsPride social media debacle.
Unfortunately for Redskins’ fans, the controversy surrounding the team’s name is not a new issue, but one which has renewed interest following a recent effort by lawmakers — including Nevada Senator Harry Reid. He and 49 other U.S. senators sent a letter to the NFL calling for the team to change its name, considered racist and insensitive by many.
Blame the team for more press, too, since it took to Twitter recently to rally support for keeping the Redskins name. It was an unmitigated disaster, starting with a response from team president Bruce Allen, which the Redskins (and some current players) shared via Twitter.
The real problems began when the team’s Twitter content began to look and feel more like a heavy-handed public relations campaign played out in social media than actual social media. The Redskins were forcing traditional (and tired) old media tactics in a new media space, over which they have little or no control.
It didn’t work because these networks — Twitter especially — are the place for self-expression, conversation and engagement. And nothing riles up a crowd — fueled by some good, ol’ fashioned Twitter snark — quite like the opportunity to demolish a poorly designed and executed hashtag campaign disguised as PR. Add in high-profile political figures, and this baby is ripe for the picking.
The campaign really blossomed following this May 29th tweet, supposedly sent to generate a groundswell of fan support for keeping the Redskins name, and a call to arms to use social media — and #RedskinsPride — to push back a tide of negativity that had crossed over from sports into social and political issues.
The reaction was swift and destructive, with sentiment around the #RedskinsPride hashtag skewed sharply negative, according to Emory University research. But it doesn’t take a PhD to see what played out on Twitter was anything less than ridiculously awful.
This is not a new thing in social media. Many brands — sports and non-sports alike — experience hashtag hijacking. As long as Twitter provides an outlet for snark, opinion, humor — call it what you will — these takeovers will continue.
The Redskins failed on many levels, and in my opinion the team needs to re-examine its entire social media strategy. Force-feeding PR into a social media diet doesn’t work. It requires careful balance that often falls flat when the PR parts are poorly disguised. If they’re not already, the Redskins social media team should stand up for its communities, and build a new strategy focused on more authentic content and conversations that drive deeper brand loyalty — not division.
In that spirit, let’s talk about what might have been. Instead of using a PR hammer to split your fans over a controversial wedge issue in social media, I’d offer these four ideas that could have helped the Redskins do right by their communities, and likely would have turned out better than #RedskinsPride.
1. Engage, engage, engage. Find your team advocates and talk to them. What are they excited about following the draft? What do they hope to see from training camp? Who are their favorite all-time players? The Redskins fail miserably at one-to-one conversations with fans (and haven’t done so on Twitter since May 17). Here’s a chance to direct the attention on your community through active and authentic social media engagement. Besides, replies are outstanding sources of future content, and could help humanize this struggling brand.
2. Change the subject. Use social media to showcase your team’s tradition, players and history — using vintage photos in a Throwback Thursday-style content series. Instead of pouring gasoline on a smoldering issue, focus on less controversial, more positive topics. This could also provide user-generated content for the team to re-purpose across its social platforms.
3. Give stuff away. Launch a social media sweepstakes. Free stuff drives fan interest and can drown out detractors pretty quickly, especially if the prizes are worthwhile. Use social media to give away behind-the-scenes access at training camp, tickets or other unique experiences. Focus on what fans want, not what you want fans to hear.
4. Stop talking. Take a social media sabbatical. If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, shut the hell up! Stick to day-to-day routines, which this time of year center around training camp, signing draft picks and preparing for the upcoming season. It’s OK to take a day or two off, especially if your brand is under fire — or a microscope. Routine might be boring, but it doesn’t attract as much attention from the Twitter snarks or further damage your brand.
Should the Redskins ever choose to change the team name, social media is an outstanding space to develop a new mascot and fresh branding. Regardless, the team should take a hard look at its social media strategy. It should also find ways to heal the open wounds festering from this controversy, and help its beleaguered fan base find positives in the upcoming season.
Thanks for being a fan.