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Socially Acceptable: How and When to Interject Your Brand Into a Viral Topic

Finding a way to capitalize on the hot topic of the day can be rewarding if done right.

For a few hours last week, the infamous MARTA bus had Twitter abuzz for all the right (and fun) reasons. (Photo via @ATLHawks)

By Greg Esposito, @espo

If there was a scouting report for social media managers the key skill would be listed as “the ability to make judgements in a split second that will either immensely help or irrevocably hurt your brand.”

It’s a tall order for anyone to take on, especially someone who will have to do it numerous times on any given game night.

The key to being effective is knowing when to join in on one of the hot topics online and when to sit on the sidelines and not tie your brand to it.
 
For every #IceBucketChallenge there is a #MeToo, a valiant movement that has created real change, but one that isn’t right for most brands, especially in sports, to interject in. Just because there is a powerful movement on social doesn’t mean your brand should automatically be involved.

During my time with the Phoenix Suns I found myself on both sides of the line.

In late February of 2015 for a few truly unique hours the internet and cable news became completely enthralled by two therapy llamas — yes, therapy llamas — — that had escaped and were on the loose in Sun City, Arizona.

We decided to have a little fun from the Suns Twitter account as the event was in our home state and we once had a player named Llamas. We made a simple joke saying “Llamas? Did someone say Llamas?” with a picture of the back of Horacio Llamas’ jersey from the 1990s. It was the perfect cross section of something that was big culturally and tied into our brand perfectly.

On another occasion, SportsCenter and catchphrase pioneer Stuart Scott lost his battle with cancer a few hours before we were about to tip off. We decided to honor his memory by using one of his classic turns of phrase in every tweet we sent that night.

It was a simple way to join the conversation and honor someone who had impacted the industry. 
 
For every success though, there is usually at least one misstep. I wasn’t impervious from it in my time with the Suns. On the anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 in 2013 I was asked to send a tweet and Facebook message to acknowledge the day.

My thought process was simple. A tweet that said #NeverForget with a photo from one of our military appreciation nights.

I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure if our brand necessarily needed to interject in the conversation. I should have listened to my gut.
 
After sending a few photos from our archives around to have my supervisors select the one they liked we settled on a picture of the Suns Gorilla, our mascot, in fatigues waving an American flag during the introductions of a game the previous year. I sent the tweet and left for a meeting. 
 
 Then this happened:

By the time I got back to my desk an hour later the internet wanted blood thinking the picture was completely inappropriate. In retrospect, on this rare occasion, the internet mob was completely correct. It was one of those moments where I thought for sure my career in sports had come to an end.

Luckily, there’s safety in numbers, and other teams and leagues made more egregious missteps that day. That, and an extremely understand Vice President at the company whose husband was a veteran and wasn’t offended, kept my employment in good standing. 
 
It was a lesson I have never forgot since and the most important rule for anyone looking to interject their brand in a topic, consider every angle of how it could possibly go sideways and reflect poorly on your entire company or team. 
 
Last Monday night, we got to see the best of this in action in Atlanta.

Both the Falcons and Hawks, two of the most creative teams on social, took advantage of the Weather Channel’s misfortune and the internet approved.

For those of you not aware, and if you’re not you must have been sequestered Monday without internet access, the Weather Channel had set up for a live shot of the implosion of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

Right as the detonation occurred a bus pulled in front of the camera, the shot was completely blocked, the cameraman lost his mind and the internet had something to occupy its time with to start a short holiday week.

The moment led to these two gems from the Hawks and Falcons.

But how did both of these memes come about, what kind of approval did they require and did they have any hesitation before posting? I caught up with Kyle Benzion, Social Media Coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and Jaryd Wilson, Digital Content Manager for the Atlanta Hawks, to discuss just that.


How Did the idea come about to use the bus graphic on your final score?

Kyle Benzion: Nikko Tan, our social media engagement specialist, came up with it. Dude is a creative genius. He showed it to me and I showed it to my boss. We all have the thumbs up so we decided when would be the best time to go with it…we decided halftime and then we did and went with it.
 
Jaryd Wilson: My boss and I were chatting Monday afternoon. We saw the bus making its rounds on social, and we thought it would be a great opportunity to capitalize. Our fans are always most engaged when the Club is playing, so we decided that if we lost a competitive game, we’d do it. I had the graphic ready before the game even started, just in case.
 
For posts like that, we have the freedom to use our judgment without seeking approval. Our CEO Steve Koonin has been great about trusting us. He even told me in a recent 1-on-1 meeting, “You’re at your best when you’re not seeking 42 approvals. I want more of that.”

He understands that the more people you bring into a conversation, the easier the answer turns to “no” even if it should be “yes”, and in a real-time space, there is often not time to run things up a traditional chain of command and get an answer before it becomes irrelevant. 
 
We have a set of brand guidelines, an actual PDF, that we use to help us decide what’s appropriate, and as long as we are following that, we’re good.

You’re not going to please everyone in this space. There’s always going to be somebody who takes it the wrong way, but the subjectivity of social media is also the beauty of social media.

In this particular case, there’s no shame in losing in San Antonio, and our team did what they’ve done all year: compete and give themselves a chance to win late in the fourth quarter.

Given the way the game went, we felt confident we could push it out without embarrassing anyone or damaging the brand. As expected, the post played very well and got a lot of positive reaction. We are seeking to do more of this type of stuff moving forward.
 
Were you surprised by the amount of attention the bus post got?
 
Kyle: When we hit tweet, we knew that tweet had potential to break the internet. So not really. With a prime time game, there’s an understanding that all eyes are on you. So good or bad, you have the potential to go viral. Luckily, this was a good viral and I think the people of Atlanta really got a laugh out of it.
 
Jaryd: Not overly, to be honest. We knew it was the hot Internet topic of the day, and we felt confident that we had a good way to capitalize. Certainly we would have preferred to win the game and not used the bus in that situation, but the engagement was a good consolation prize. Obviously the fact that it happened in our market was an advantage and was something our fans could relate with.
 
Have their been cultural happenings you’ve considered playing off of on social but decided against in the past?
 
Kyle: Oh absolutely. We’re all about our brand and persona. Our brand is representative of both our city and team.

City-swagger, music, confidence, cockiness.

Team-confident, determined, never an underdog, always a belief that we’re gonna win.

That’s our social persona. It has to fit that. If it doesn’t, but every other team is doing it, we don’t care…we’re not going to force something. For example… the dancing hot dog on snapchat a few months ago…so many teams were utilizing that but clearly that doesn’t fit anything above that I just named about our voice.
 
Jaryd: As a matter of fact, yes. We actually had one just today that we decided against posting. I won’t tell you what those ideas were, but I will say that our judgment has been pretty good. We haven’t had a predominantly bad external reaction to anything we’ve posted in the 5 years I’ve been here…no PR emergencies so-to-speak, so that’s something we take a lot of pride in.

We don’t want to make the brand look bad, and we’ve avoided trouble so far.

There have been times, including today, where I want so badly to press publish because I know the engagement will be great, but it’s just not worth the potential backlash that could come from users, media, etc.


The Hawks and Falcons are proof that when you know your brand voice and commit to it, making those split second decisions rarely will break you and, more often than not, will help make you one of the best in your industry.


Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

Want to learn more, or have a story featured about you or your organization? Contact us today.

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