By Daniel G. Kelly II, Ph. D

twitter-292994_640On January 15, 2017, following the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, All-Pro Wide Receiver Antonio Brown broadcasted a 17-minute video of the post-game celebration on Facebook Live. Brown, who currently has a 6-figure endorsement deal with Facebook, posted the live video with the intention of providing fans with unfettered access to the Steelers’ private victory celebration.

During the post-game celebration, Coach Mike Tomlin gave an impromptu speech about preparing to face the New England Patriots. During Tomlin’s speech, the coach used derogatory language when referencing the Patriots in what he assumed was a private setting.

The backlash of the fans and media over the video was seen instantly. What started out innocently enough turned into an embarrassing situation for Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin, and the Steelers organization due to the influence of social media.

The phenomenon of social media has taken the private lives of professional athletes to new levels of prosperity and fiscal advantage. Professional athletes are now able to use social media as a means of transcending sports and gaining access to the realms of fashion, entertainment, and activism. Within the sports industry, social media has become a normal venue for information sharing and has been as effective as major media outlets. It’s especially important to understand the impact media has when you’re looking into starting a career in sports marketing and PR.

The purpose of the media is to provide consumers with the original source of information. The chance for consumers to bypass the media and interact directly with the source (professional athletes) via social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc., is a new dynamic that is influencing the brand management of professional athletes — for better or worse.

Let’s take a look at the breakdown of the effect of social media on professional athlete brand management:

The Good

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Professional athletes have been able to use social media as a means of better establishing their respective brand management processes. Publicity and social media are a match made in heaven. Social media allows professional athletes to interact directly with their fans and consumers and provide instant participation in the awareness, image, equity, and loyalty of their respective brands.

  • Brand Awareness – Social media can build a reputation.
  • Brand Image – Social media can project desired images as positive publicity for the professional athlete and the causes they wish to support.
  • Brand Equity – Social media is an instant means of sharing knowledge and creating immediate access to information otherwise off-limits to consumers.
  • Brand Loyalty – Social media can transcend boundaries and location while establishing trends toward the faithfulness of consumers.

The Bad

The phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is often associated with Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th-century American showman and circus owner. The invention of social media definitely challenges this concept.

Social media, at times, can take on a mind of its own when the publicity of professional athletes is mismanaged. The ideals of a professional athlete’s respective brand are in jeopardy due to the harsh reality of the temperamental nature of the public.

  • Brand Awareness – Bad publicity, such as an arrest or a negative public interaction, can instantly have a negative effect on the brand of the professional athlete.
  • Brand Image – Several professional athletes have fallen victim to “hacked” phones or accidentally uploaded private pictures or images to one of their devices. These mistakes can be very costly and result in lost endorsement deals.
  • Brand Equity – It takes years to build a good reputation and seconds to lose it.  Social media can lead to negative connotations of a professional athlete’s brand based on an association with bad situations.
  • Brand Loyalty – Negative publicity can lead to lost revenue on professional athlete contracts as well as endorsements.

The Ugly Truth

Many professional athletes intend to use social media as a means of positive interaction with their fans and the public at large. At times, the positive intention can be misinterpreted negatively based on circumstances.

Take again Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro Wide Receiver Antonio Brown’s decision to use Facebook live to share Coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game speech. This is a clear example of good intentions leading to a very negative impact. Rather than providing fans with unprecedented access to the lives of professional athletes in an inspiring way, the overall outcome was a negative situation for the entire Steelers Nation.
When it comes to social media awareness and brand management, the professional athlete must be conscientious of the good and bad results of every interaction.

Daniel G. Kelly II, Ph. D is the Faculty Director for the masters in Sports Industry Management program at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. Prior to joining the staff at Georgetown Dr. Kelly was Director of the Sports Management Program at Wilmington College.