Social Media, Replacement Referees and Crisis Comms

For those of us addicted to football (American football, my overseas friends), the current season has been tough to deal with. Due to a contract issue, the National Football League has locked their referees out and have installed replacement refs to adjudicate the games.

The results have been, as anticipated, not pretty. At the end of this week’s Monday night game (for my football fans that’s typically the biggest game of the week), the Seattle Seahawks quarterback heaved a pass to the end zone, hoping to score on the final play and win the game. A Green Bay Packers player seemingly came down with the ball, which was then wrestled away by a Seahawks player. One of the replacement referees called the play a touchdown, another called it an interception. In either case, the game was over, and who won was contingent upon the referees call.

The refs ruled that the Seahawks won. The social media world subsequently exploded.

A number of Green Bay Packers players tweeted their displeasure.

You can see in the picture above how, after midnight on the East Coast, how large of a response that event generated. The reason I post on this is the following line in a TechCrunch article posted this afternoon:

[T]he point is that NFL players took to Twitter first to voice their displeasure, rather than talking to mainstream press on camera. The tide has changed for how people communicate, and this is a perfect example.

I think that anyone who has been paying attention to crisis communications has seen this shift taking place. It’s just really nice to see that in stark terms (with pictures!) on a topic that a wide majority of Americans are interested in.

Update from Heather Brink (devoted Packers fan): According to the Twitter blog, the play in question generated more than one million tweets, and TJ Lang (the most vociferous tweeter in this matter) had more than 150,000 retweets himself. Truly viral.


6 thoughts on “Social Media, Replacement Referees and Crisis Comms”

  1. Although I don’t follow football, I did see a flurry of tweets from those I do follow on the replacement refs. I couldn’t help but think how one could extend this correlation to the management of an organization’s social media efforts by replacing experienced and knowledgeable topic-experts with summer interns and inexperienced employees. This isn’t to say that they’re not technically qualified to use social media (much like substitute refs are technically qualified because they’ve gone through training). But the lack of practical experience will show through an organization’s efforts, just like Twitterers have shown their displeasure for bad NFL decisions.

    Lesson learned.

    1. Everyone who works in your organization is your spokesperson. You can forbid them from talking to the media, but how they act and how they identify themselves will always reflect on your company. And if you put summer interns in charge of social media? You might as well have given them free reign to speak to the media, because they are.

      Great point, Scott. Thanks so much!

  2. Like anything there is a big gap between talking/complaining about your disappointment and acting on your disappointment. Personally, I have acted by cancelling my NFL network subscription, vowing not to watch the NFL or participate in NFL related activities (ie Fantasy Football), and contacted the management of the NFL team in which I am a part owner. It will be a challenge to avert my eyes and pageviews from games and information on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday, but I think I am up to it. I will look forward to coming back when the lockout is over.

    I think the challenge for social media managers is to look for a connection between complaints and actions in the audience. If the NFL only receives complaints but ratings continue unchanged there is no reason for the organization to act.

    1. You make an interesting point, Greg. One that brings up two thoughts. One in what I’ve been calling the tempest-in-a-teapot crisis communications conundrum, the other is trainwreck idea.

      First, tempest-in-a-teapot. There are some out there who think that in today’s world of constant media over-saturation, every foible and disaster is time-limited and given enough time (and the next shiny, new thing to come along), the damage caused by crises can be limited. Basically, when you’ve got a political problem, you’re hoping that the fellow above you has a bigger one coming soon. If everyone’s appalled, but no one does anything about it, was it really a disaster? In a world where newspapers dominate, your story is above-the-fold for a whole day. In a social media world, maintaining the top of the trending list for more than ten minutes is an accomplishment. My thoughts about if this will blow over? Given the way the football season is set up, with weekly drip-drip-drips of insanely frustrating officiating, I don’t know that this will just go away and more people will do what you’re doing. (And in that case, you might be watching football again by December.)

      Second, the trainwreck. You know the popular saying, “It’s like a trainwreck, I can’t stop watching!” today postulated that viewership will actually go UP this week because no one will want to be out of the loop of the next refereeing disaster. They missed Monday night’s disaster because of the lateness of the game, but they won’t miss the next one.

      So, what’s Roger Goodell’s pinch point? Does he fear bad press more than decreased revenue? Does he want a tempest-in-a-teapot or a trainwreck?

      Thanks so much for your comment, Greg, and keep strong my man.

      1. Pinch point for Godell is the team owners and that is one of the challenges of leadership is knowing who you are leading and representing and who you are following.

  3. I think it’s interesting that in this and many other cases action moved from offline (the event) to online (social media) to offline (fans taking action). In this case, fans called, emailed and faxed Goodell’s office overnight (at least 70,000 calls according to ESPN). This lead to the NFL taking action and bringing back the real officials. This speaks to the necessity for communicators, non-profits, government orgs, etc. to not only be involved in social media but to be a credible presence that is responsive in a crisis. In this case, the NFL released a statement Tuesday, but Goodell himself didn’t speak, or even appear publicly until Thursday afternoon. The other key point is to provide people with an action to take in a crisis i.e. Packer fans/bloggers tweeting fellow fans to call Goodell and have their voices heard, the Red Cross asking for donations to help with disaster relief, telling people to make a kit to be prepared, etc.

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