Social Media: The New Olympic Sport

By: Guest | August 1, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Elissa Freeman.

Embracing social media is something the Olympic movement knew it had to do.

With this medium moving at warp speed in popularity since the 2008 Beijing Games, and gaining considerable speed during Vancouver 2010, industry veterans knew that Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest would have their own podium finishes at London 2012.

But true to form with any emerging and not widely understood entity, the ugly side of social media has reared its head in world record time.

Here it is, only day five and the victims are already piling up:

Should we be surprised? Not in the slightest. Welcome to the new ‘freedom of speech’ folks! Citizen journalism at its finest – unfettered, unscripted, and, in some cases, unusual. And yes, for some, this is going to take getting used to. We always hear about armchair quarterbacks…well, now we get to hear from them.

The London 2012 Olympics are proving to be the perfect test scenario of intense, global social media. This has resulted in an ad-hoc campaign of sorts, except there isn’t one client, there was never a creative brief, and what has ensued is an organic and fresh approach to reporting.

On the upside? Anyone can follow any athlete and truly feel a part of their Olympic journey as they tweet and Instagram away thoughts and pictures of their own special moments.

As social media watchers, we can study engagement, reaction, and trouble-shooting from a number of different angles. We can look at it from the sport, corporate or media outlet side. The positive and the negative of mass interaction.

It is incumbent upon PR/social media/marketing pros to learn from what went right and what went terribly wrong. We have a prime opportunity to take our respective industries to another level and provide even better advice to our clients or organizations.

Hopefully, relevant and appropriate metrics will be shared. New communities of social media engagers will emerge. New or improved platforms will be developed.

Yes, the Olympics only happen every four years. But for those of us who are in a position to help grow and revolutionize our industries, the timing is perfect.

What’s your opinion of how social media is shaping the Olympics? What effect do you think it will have on your industry?

Elissa Freeman is a  self-confessed pop culture junkie, and a 20+ year PR veteran who was recently named one of twitter’s Top 52 PR pros. You can follow her on Twitter at elissaPR.

  • In my view, the biggest issue here is the old gatekeepers (i.e. NBC) refuse to acknowledge the fact that social media trumps their broadcasting rights. If I want to watch an event live that NBC isn’t covering, I just direct my browser to the BBC’s feed. The idea that there’s only one source of information just doesn’t play anymore. That’s the big lesson here for comms professionals. Don’t assume you can control any given situation once it’s “in the open”. Forecast as best as you can what the issues will be, and then adapt to what they end up becoming. 

    • ElissaFreeman

       So true, Matt.  Large organizations like NBC are still operating by the same broadcast formula: take the best of the day, package it up, and hope that nobody has paid attention until prime time to watch. There’s got to be a better way…

      •  @ElissaFreeman I really think they need to assume that everyone knows the results. Turn your evening broadcasts into “SportsCenter” essentially. You can show longer periods of the competitions, or the ENTIRE competition if you want, just don’t assume that no one has seen or heard about it. Having commentators break down what happened afterwards would be incredibly interesting to me.

        • magriebler

           @MattLaCasse I would definitely watch that kind of program. Right now I keep up with the real-time results throughout the day and then sit clued to the television at night. Even when I know who’s won which medals, there’s nothing to match the excitement of watching the footage. Nothing. This concept would also work for people who have been staying away from Olympic coverage during the day because they want to preserve the element of surprise. (Some of them live in my house with me, so I know of what I speak. And they’re younger than you might think.) A win all around.

        • ElissaFreeman

           @MattLaCasse hey that’s what you get when you don’t want to invest in keeping your viewers…if you’re not going to go live during the Games and rely on your tried and true prime time formula…at some point you’ve got to realize you need to make a change!

  • sueyoungmedia

    Your post is truly insightful on several different levels.
    Like you, I always have my radar on when citizen journalism is involved. All of the examples you mentioned, along with the lame commentaries and factual errors from Matt Lauer and colleagues, makes me fearful for what the next week holds for us.
    The #NBCFail hashtag that gained traction in a matter of minutes/hours will make for a great case studies and teachable moments for PR pros and universities throughout the world.
    We are in uncharted waters here. I am not sure if I am impressed, or just want to cry. Time will tell.
    Best regards,

    • ElissaFreeman

       @sueyoungmedia The point you raise about the hashtag is a good one – I think every mega organization lives in fear of the awkward/damaging hashtag.  This is something where strategically most companies are wandering in the social media wilderness…

  • Marcellini

    I’ve been watching social media through and seeing trends and real-time events has been really exciting. Being a millenial myself, social media has defined the millenial generation and now that a lot of millenials are competing in the Olympics- the Olympics is going to be defined by social media. The IOC buried their head in the sands, ignoring the primary uses of social media and tried to stop them with heavy hitting restrictions. For them to be surprised by the influence social media is having on these games is ridiculous, and I hope that these games have given them much more insight on how to handle and be prepared for the 2014 & 2016 Olympics. 

    • ElissaFreeman

       @Marcellini I heard an interesting comment the other day on the radio: the IOC was pleased the athletes were tweeting away – but they didn’t want them to share video – as the international broadcast rights holders get first dibs.  Now, if an athlete shares some video, of his/her race, then posts it to their blog, facebook page etc…AND they win a gold medal…then what?  Will the IOC strip them of their medal for flouting regulations?  This will be an interesting scenario to watch…stay tuned!

  • sharonhnanny

    Frankly I’m only mildly surprised at the kerfuffle over some of the social media outpourings around the London 2012 Olympics. Isn’t this simply the macro version of the day-to-day indulgences of the truly unwise who ignore the need to measure their words and think twice before putting  their often outrageous views out there in the blogosphere, twitterverse or on some other social media platform? Aren’t the “crazed fans” simply a global version of the online bullies who continue to trash and demean their “friends” ,frequently with grim consequences?  As for the racist comments – there are two issues here: 1) it’s wrong and 2) how dumb are these people who not only feel justified in their backwoods opinions, but also believe it’s their right to publicly air them?  Did they think we’d put it down to overly zealous Olympic rivalry, agree with them, or worse, choose to ignore them? Great post, Ms. Freeman – thanks for the heads up to use the good, the bad and the ugly of Olympic social media to inform our own social media practice and that of our clients!   

    • ElissaFreeman

       @sharonhnanny I hear you! Citizen journalism has its ugly side, that’s for sure.  But in the quest for honest commentary, versus the overly messaged, sanitized stuff we’re used to getting from the media…we obviously are taking the bad with the good.

  • It seems like social media, as it pertains to the Olympics, is bringing out the worst in us. I have yet to see somebody compliment NBC, or their local daily newspaper’s Facebook page, on the incredible job they are doing covering the Games. It seems to be all vitriol and vigor. 
    If anything, these Olympics have shown how a deluge of available information can bring with it a sense of impatience that we have never seen before.
    I would argue that anybody who wishes to watch the Olympics in prime time should stay off social media during the day (read a book, plant some flowers, do your work, talk to a friend in person, etc.) so they can watch the events in unspoiled bliss at night. But, apparently, that is out of the question.
    We just like to complain. And it shows.

    • magriebler

       @bradmarley I do have friends and family members who are really trying to preserve the element of surprise with the Olympics. They’re being very careful in their use of social media. And I respect that, so at times I even pretend not to know the outcome of an event.
      And while I get what you’re saying about everybody complaining, I just can’t stand NBC’s coverage. Listening to the commentary while I was watching the finals in women’s gymnastics last night was painful. Sexist, condescending, maudlin … so inappropriate when these young women were performing amazing physical feats and demonstrating such courage and endurance.
      I am torn on this one. I really am. I shouldn’t watch, but I am a summer Olympics junkie who literally waits four years for my fix. I want NBC to do a better job.

      • ElissaFreeman

         @magriebler  @bradmarley I do have to say I too have been appalled by some of NBC’s commentator’s questions…many of which are cringe-worthy.  I suppose in the quest to ask something other than: “so what does winning a gold medal feel like?” they go for the over-wrought.

      •  @magriebler I haven’t heard complaints about the actual commentary. Only the tape delay and spoiler issues. And I didn’t watch much of the gymnastics, so I can’t say I agree. But if they were making inappropriate comments, I have to think (hope?) their broadcast rights will be reconsidered in 2016.

        • magriebler

           @bradmarley Or at least get better commentators! I can only hope.

    • ElissaFreeman

       @bradmarley There is definitely some truth to what you say. Some use social media as a platform behind which they can hide – so they feel they can say what they want without repercussion. Also, it’s not that I sympathize with NBC…it’s just that if you’re not going to pay the full broadcast fee or invest in providing your viewers with live coverage – they’re not left with much of a choice.

  • EdwardTerry

    @ginidietrich @elissapr @LisaHoffmann I think this really shines a light on how we are as a species too. Good, but still some work to do.

    • elissapr

      @EdwardTerry @ginidietrich @lisahoffmann interesting perspective! SM seems to give people the license to break all the rules.

      • EdwardTerry

        @elissapr @ginidietrich @lisahoffmann SM gives us transparency. Rule breakers have always been there, but now they are sooo visible.

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  • elissapr

    @lauwhitehouse thank you for the RT of my guest post!

  • teachpr

    @elissapr Thoughtful. And beware. Just becasue you have a POV doesn’t mean it is journalism. Employ skepticism & RT & MT with care. #SMchat

  • RajSooknanan

    So far, my lifeline to the Olympics has been through social media.  I work 9am to 5pm and find myself constantly checking my Blackberry for updates via Facebook and Twitter.  I just can’t get enough.  Although there has been some dark clouds, so far for me, the benefits have far surpassed the antics of the rogue contributors in the world wide conversation.  To me the future is clear, social media will continue to grow, because you just can’t silence the passionate voice.  In return, I think athletes will be forced to be more than just athletes.  That’s where you come in EF.  You’ll be their new coach!

    • ElissaFreeman

       @RajSooknanan Hmmm…I like that idea Raj…! But I do like the way you present the ‘glass half full’ POV plus the notion of athlete as citizen journalist.  AFter all, who could provide the most realistic, on-the-ground reporting from the Olympics than the athletes themselves??

  • EricTaubert

    It’s been an interesting week, for sure! RT @ginidietrich Social Media: The New Olympic Sport via @elissapr

  • I think with better planning and more integration so much more could be achieved, more community involvement, more discussion aggregation, like you mention it’s a way for people to connect with the athletes and the games, and with more effort to nurture and enable these connections everyone could get so much more out of it. 

    • ElissaFreeman

       You’re so right! I think many left social media to grow organizcally during the Games and didn’t need a strategy.  Clearly, that’s not the case.  Now there’s a big learning!!

  • HavergalCollege

    What do you think about social media at @London2012? RT @elissapr Is social media the new #Olympic #sport?

  • Frank_Strong

    @elissapr Cheers, and congrats! Nice post. @spinsucks

  • patmrhoads

     @ElissaFreeman  I have nothing of great value to add, but did want to say I think your article makes some great points, and I’ve loved some of the comments below (especally by @MattLaCasse ). Thanks for such a well-written riff on a great topic, one which I believe is simply a magnified version of what is happening in journalism as we speak. 

  • brasonja

    @ynagai22 Thanks for sharing, have a great upcoming weekend 🙂

    • ynagai22

      @brasonja Always a pleasure Boris – glad we met:). Have a great weekend!

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  • leenurhan

    @ginidietrich @elissapr #Easily include a familiar Facebook Like button within your emails#