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Why the Olympic Games Social Media Policy Failed

Guest point by Eric Schwartzman (@ericschwartzman) on why he believes the Social Media Policy at the 2012 London Olympics failed

First off, social media could have at least partially erased the advantage that some state-sponsored “full-time amateur athletes” from Eastern Bloc countries enjoy over self-financed amateurs from Western countries. But unfortunately the social media gag order by the IOC neutered that chance by restricting athletes from sharing posts that mention their sponsors on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else online. Here’s the clause:

“Participants and other accredited persons are not permitted to promote any brand, product or service within a posting, blog or tweet…” [PDF]

Since state-funded athletes don’t need to raise money from private enterprise to support their Olympic bids, social media could have given those who do a way to rally funds.

The financial pressure on US Olympians is no joke. The parents of Gabby Douglas and Ryan Lochte both filed for bankruptcy recently, crushed under the immense financial sacrifice it took to get their children to the Olympic Games. Recognizing the contributions of their sponsors via social media might have offered some relief. But Rule 40 erased that possibility.

The Track & Field Athletes Association, Olympians and fans have been protesting the policy by including the hastags #rule40 and #WeDemandChange in their tweets. Above is an image Olympic medalist Dawn Harper tweeted to protest the gag order.

What’s backwards is the premise of the rule, which assumes that if athletes use social media to promote their own sponsors, official Olympic sponsors and rights holding broadcasters will lose. This is second reason the effort failed. It assumed that the media landscape is a zero sum game and that the absence of unofficial sponsors in social media would be a gain for official sponsors in mainstream media.

But as we seen, social media drives traffic to owned media, increasing the number of eyeballs broadcasters have to sell to paid media.

As veteran reporter Suzanne Vranica wrote in a story about the impact of social media on ratings:

“There have been plenty of negative hashtags assigned to NBC’s Olympics coverage on Twitter, including #NBCFail and #NBCStinks. But on Madison Avenue the hashtag for this Olympics so far is more like: #NBC$$$$.”

The take away is this. Social media doesn’t replace mainstream media. It drives mind share. More mind share equals more viewers. And more viewers means more value for official sponsors and broadcasters. What the IOC failed to appreciate is that tweets, blogs and mobile videos don’t cannibalize prime time viewership. They complement it.

To be fair, the IOC’s social media policy is certainly no anomaly. According to the National Labor Relations Board, most social media policies in the US are unlawful. Rule 40 is just one of many shortsighted gaffes that digitally illiterate gatekeepers from a bygone era have concocted to try and police the digital world by analog standards. Which brings me to the third, and final reason the social media policy at the London Olympics failed.

In the US, we enjoy freedom of speech. When organizations restrict that freedom they provoke real hate, and that hatred severely tarnish their brand. Social media policies govern personal expression and many regard personal expression as a natural right.

If organizations are seen as depriving individuals of what they consider to be their inalienable rights, such as the right to improve their working conditions or the right to bargain collectively, those same organizations are seen as unjust and their reputations suffer, which is the case for the IOC.

To sum it up, Rule 40 not only fumbled the chance to level the playing field for all Olympians, it skirted a ratings gain and stained the reputation of the International Olympic Organizing Committee. They protected themselves in the court of law and lost in the court of public opinion.

But it didn’t have to be a win-lose scenario. They could have had their cake and ate it too. If you’d like to learn how to develop practical, win-win social media guidelines by which your employees can conduct responsible, constructive social media engagement in both official and unofficial capacities, here’s a half price link good until the Closing Ceremonies for the first 50 sign-ups to take my online course on social media policy development.

Eric Schwartzman is the creator of

41 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Why the Olympic Games Social Media Policy Failed”

  1. Chris T–T says:

    This misunderstands both social media as a people’s comms (not just marketing) tool – and the Olympics themselves. There are good reasons that companies sponsoring athletes just have to work within tight rules: the Olympics sponsors funded the games without their own brand logos being displayed anywhere during the whole Olympics (given us a brand-free games overall), so why should athletes (who almost always gain the single biggest boost of a career by their performance in Olympic games) be allowed to advertise anyone, especially rival sponsors – to those who’ve funded the whole thing? The idea that non-western athletes get advantage from state funding is both drastically outdated (for example China is now a brand-friendly, sponsorship friendly capitalist regime, not communist in anything but name) and nothing to do with individual sponsorship rules. Also, the lack of blatant sponsor plugging actually improves athletes’ brands since they are more honestly ‘themselves’ when not under pressure to plug sponsors. This reflects back on sponsors themselves as honest support of great athletes, instead of demanding constant reciprocal advertising.

    In other words, stfu whining about branding and let these amazing athletes’ performances speak for themselves. Unless you want an Olympics covered in brand logos everywhere, which I guess you might.

    • ed lee says:

      great point chris. no exclusivity means less value for sponsors which means fewer sponsorship dollars which means less funding for the olympiad and eventually, no more games for athletes to receive massive career boosts from.

    • Whether they’re sponsored, unsponsored, positive or negative, more tweets and status updates means more viewership. More viewership means more, not less, value. Read this –>

    • I disagree Chris. As I wrote, your argument assumes the absence of sponsor recognition in social media somehow protects the investment official sponsors make, but as NBC has already acknowledge and countless other examples have shown, social media drives mainstream media consumption. With respect to social media as a marketing channel, I agree with you. That’s only one application. Which is why I included the IOC’s attempt to gag personal expression as the third failing.

  2. writing bee says:

    The idea that non-western athletes get advantage from state funding is both drastically outdated and nothing to do with individual sponsorship rules.

  3. Talking about Olympics and brand is sad…Brands are everywhere and should be outside of Olympics game, which should be a liberated sport event (every 4 years is it too much asking ?); as sports are yet inequal, brands are making athletes more inequal…The only trade mark accepted should be the country represented by athletes. Brands can use every other competitions to display their colors….

    • I identify with your point of view. But this post is not about branding or trademarks. It’s about the development of reasonable, fair social media policies.

  4. Amir Zonozi says:

    No doubt it is a consensus that it failed, it’s impossible to mute the world so to speak, the Olympic committee represents a dying age of demographic that doesn’t understand social media and in response fears it. We have done some really cool things with the social data from twitter so far, take a look

    • Cool dashboard. But the Philippines and Indonesia counts seem low. I recall a bunch of different independent reports saying that social media adoption in these two countries is among the highest worldwide. What do you think?

  5. John Bardos says:

    Perhaps a way athletes could skirt the social media restrictions is to tattoo corporate brands on their foreheads. Or how about changing their names to mention their sponsors. We could have Pepsi Bolt or Tide Phelps. Sadly, I don’t think this is too far away.

    Do we really want a world where everything is for sale? Are our “amateur” athletes up for sale to the highest bidder?

    You talk about “the advantage (of) some state-sponsored “full-time amateur athletes” from Eastern Bloc countries.”

    What about the other approximately 180 non-western countries, how are they supposed to compete against the unfair Eastern bloc and the corporate athletes of the west? The Olympics are already very unfair, and US athletes are among the greatest beneficiaries of that unfairness.

    I feel the social media restrictions are a bit draconian, but stopping athletes from advertising outside sponsors at an event that they are invited to doesn’t seem too outrageous to me. Would it be okay for attendees at a Pepsi conference, to be sponsored by Coke? Coke could pay their way into the conference if they agree to tweet about the company and wear the logo. I don’t think that would go over well either.

    If the athletes don’t like it, they can choose not to go. Maybe next year there could be a Pepsi Olympics? 🙂

    • I too lament the sponsorship of just about everything in sports. But the issue here is not unlike that of censorship. If you believe freedom of speech is a natural right, you have to take the good with the bad. Check out this story today about the IOC blaming Twitter for disrupting television coverage: It’s yet another shortsighted gaffe from digitally illiterate gatekeepers from a bygone
      era. When will they learn? You can’t police the digital world by analog

    • Michael says:

      It’s utterly unlike that of censorship, which isn’t optional. Competing in the Olympics is.

      As for the IOC, how is that any different from Steve Jobs asking everyone to turn off their 3g hotspots during a keynote? Was that digitally illiterate? The timings were off because the GPS senders used public 3G networks. Those networks were overloaded with data from the public.

      When will overheated digistas learn? The digital world exists within analog boundaries.

  6. Henry Singer says:

    “They could have had their cake and ate it too.”… Doesn’t make sense. The original saying was “you can’t eat your cake and have it too”, which is of course true.

  7. Michael says:

    1. The families of US athletes are not being driven into bankruptcy because they aren’t able to squeeze every drop out of sponsorship; they’re being driven into bankruptcy because the body designed to support them — the US Olympic Committee — gives barely 10% of its income to funding athletes. The income that is due to them from the charity dedicated to them far outweighs what they “lost” in rule 40.

    2. The premise of the rule is only partly protection of existing sponsors. It is much more protection of the Olympics, which was badly tarnished by the sponsorship free-for-all of Atlanta, and is taking steps to ensure that everything is not plastered with advertising.

    3. This is not a free speech issue, or one of censorship. The Olympics are not a state, they are a private organisation. The athletes are free to tweet about their sponsors, so long as they do not compete in the Olympics. It’s a condition of entry to the games, one which they are free to refuse.

    Ultimately, as others have said, most people prefer an Olympics dedicated to athletics, not dedicated to marketing. It’s refreshing to see stadiums and arenas without sponsorship or logos. Protecting that is a worthwhile goal. It is reasonable and fair to expect athletes to honour that spirit.

    • Dirk Singer says:

      Yes – this is a key point. There is no ‘Eastern bloc’ of state funded athletes like the 1980s, just look at how the United German team has fared since the fall of communism. That is unless you now define Cuba and China as the Eastern bloc.

      What there is, is some countries who fund their Olympic athletes more generously than others. For instance, Britain had its most successful games ever. Yes, home advantage played a part in that 29 gold medal count. So did funding from the UK national lottery being diverted to sports like cycling and rowing.

      As a result, surely the (social media) focus of US athletes should be to get your Olympic committee to release a bit more of its very full treasure chest to its athletes

  8. Branding & sponsorship aside, the social media policies of the IOC were suffocating. The IOC had an opportunity to embrace social media fully, make the Olympics the most intimate & engaging ever, yet they chose to replace openness with fear & centralized control. The few sponsorship dollars they were trying to protect cost them much more in terms of engagement, loyalty, and trust with their audience.

  9. tennis world says:

    You have put huge information in a single blog.Keep in touch with us in future too.

  10. writing service says:

    The IOC has always employed draconian measures
    to protect the value of their own brand so this censorship of the athletes is
    really not very surprising. It has been a long time since the Olympic Games
    have been an amateur competition, making any claims of keeping them ‘brand
    free’ just whitewash. The only issue that the IOC has with other brands is that
    they are the competition. Their view of what marketing is all about is stuck in
    the past and unless they move forward and embrace social media more effectively
    they will continue to develop a negative profile with the sports viewing

  11. Peter says:

    The IOC is well within their right to dictate social media policy for its athletes. All professional sports teams have a social media policy for their athletes, not as restrictive but enforced. Being on Twitter is not an inalienable right. A right is only inalienable if it applies to all of humanity. As far as I know there are only 140 million people on Twitter and over 7 billion people.

  12. Okay folks. So the numbers are in. According to a post today in the Official Google Blog…

    “Many viewers turned to one or more “second screens” beyond TV to keep
    updated on the Olympics—nearly half of those who did (44 percent) did so
    via a mobile phone or tablet.”

    Where do you think they went for real time updates “beyond TV?” Answer = social media. Social media drives viewership. More –>

    “People who followed the Games on TV plus one other screen watched 52 percent more Olympics on TV than those who didn’t; people who followed on two
    additional screens spent more than twice as much time (105 percent)
    with TV. And people who watched live streams of events online watched 66
    percent more Olympics on television than people who followed
    exclusively on TV.”


    As I wrote in the post, by limiting what the athletes could discuss, there were fewer discussions for people to participate in, and the more discussion occuring, the larger the viewership.

    The larger the viewership, the more inventory there is to sell to advertisers and the greater the value to official sponspors.

  13. Friv2G says:

    Good post. Thanks. this article is very interesting with me.

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