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Throttled by those five ubiquitous rings - Francis Moran & AssociatesFrancis Moran & Associates

Throttled by those five ubiquitous rings

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By Alexandra Reid

The International Olympic Committee is launching a host of programs with the goal of making the 2012 London Games the “most social and tech-savvy Olympics ever,” but restrictive social media guidelines reveal the organization’s inability to move beyond its old and broken command-and-control communications model.

In its Social Media, Blogging and Internet Guidelines the IOC states that it “actively encourages and supports athletes and other accredited persons at the Olympic Games to take part in ‘social media’ and to post, blog and tweet their experiences.” However, such activity must respect the Olympic Charter and comply with a confusing and contradictory set of rules that tightly controls what they can share.

The program’s centrepiece, The Olympic Athletes’ Hub, will let Olympic fans track athletes’ activities across multiple social channels including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google Plus. The IOC is also launching a host of Tumblr blogs and a virtual Olympic Village where fans can discuss the events with athletes and former Olympians in real-time. A gamification element called the Olympic Challenge — a game that’s integrated with Facebook and Open Graph – will encourage fans to compete with friends and other fans in predicting the outcome of the Olympic events. Foursquare check-ins are also encouraged, so long as they are at off-site venues.

Sponsorship vs spirit

On the surface, this sounds like a well-thought-out and highly, erm, social social media program indeed. But the volatile and extemporaneous nature of social media is presenting a challenge to the IOC that has traditionally exercised rigid control over its operations.

“(The IOC) understands the power of social media,” says The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie, “But it also has to protect its corporate partners like McDonald’s and Coca Cola, which are footing nearly all of the $3-billion operating costs for London.”

Protecting its corporate sponsors is as crucial to the Olympic’s survival as fending off terrorists. But at the core of the Olympic brand is the Olympic spirit, which is fueled by its immensely talented and passionate athletes, volunteers and fans. I’m afraid the IOC’s attempt to control our zealous champions, who at the peak of their athletic careers and encouraged by their supporters will no doubt want to shout their trials and victories from the rooftops, will be a futile one. For the once-in-a-lifetime volunteers, I expect sharing the exciting moments will be equally tempting. I find it doubtful that they will be thinking about the details of the social media guidelines when their favourite athlete finishes in first place and they snap and upload a photo to Instigram with the Olympic rings in the background. I also think the IOC is missing a major opportunity for athletes to share personal stories from the Olympic games — if one of the most human-focused organizations in the world won’t allow its champions to share openly their experiences, what hope do other organizations have?

Preventative vs enabling

Social media guidelines are meant to teach an organization’s members how to use online social tools to engage with others in a way that is both respectful and relevant. The ultimate goal is to ensure participants positively represent the organization. Some organizations’ guidelines are more restrictive than others, but the most successful are those that educate participants on best practices, encourage them to use proper judgment, and teach them about the importance of protecting personal privacy and the organization’s confidential information.

Unfortunately, the IOC’s guidelines are more preventative than enabling; they don’t teach participants how they should engage, but forbid activities without providing a helpful explanation. On top of this, the guidelines are vague and contradictory while they also threaten severe consequences if not followed stating, “The accrediations of any organization or person accredited at the Olympic Games may be withdrawn without notice, at the discretion of the IOC, for purposes of ensuring compliance with these guidelines.”

Brand police

And it isn’t just athletes and accredited persons being ordered around. Backing up the IOC in defending the Olympic brand and its sponsors is the Olympic Deliverance Committee. In an article I read this morning from the National Post, author Matthew Fisher went so far as to call the committee “Orwellian-sounding” as it deploys its 280 Olympic “brand police,” who are authorized by the government, to fan out across Britain this week to ensure nobody uses the five hallowed rings for any purpose unless they have paid a fortune to Olympic organizers to do so.

Have spirit at your own risk, folks.

This leads me to a few details of the guidelines with which I find fault:

1. “Any such postings, blogs or tweets must be in a first-person, diary-type format and should not be in the role of a journalist.” I fail to understand the difference between a journalism story and a personal one. After all, many of the best journalism stories follow the model, “Someone doing something interesting because…” Many of the best journalists I follow on social media take a candid approach to telling the news, not to mention the proliferation of citizen journalism, which is a product of the rise of social media.

2. Tagged onto this guideline as an example is, “They must not report on competition or comment on the activities of other participants or accredited persons.” Again, how can an athlete resist sharing with their community the details of the very reason why they are at the Olympics – competition? And why would the IOC resist this? Do they fear an altercation that could affect an athlete’s performance? Again, education on healthy social media engagement, or even explaining why they can’t talk about this, might prove more effective here than preventing an area of discussion altogether.

3. “Participants and other accredited persons must not use the Olympic Symbol – i.e. the five interlaced rings, which is the property of the IOC – on their postings, blogs or tweets on any social media platforms or on any websites.” I understand why the IOC feels it needs to include this in the guidelines, but it will be impossible to avoid. And why would they prevent people from sharing their brand logo? Will they really penalize athletes and accredited individuals if the rings are in the background of a photo?

An awkward and confusing dance

Ordering Olympians and other accredited persons to comply with this demanding social media program will result in an awkward dance; toes are going to be stepped on and it won’t end gracefully.

The athletes are already confused about how to navigate the social media floor. As Waldie reported, Canadian marathoner Dylan Wykes finds the IOC rules “a bit bewildering,” adding that he “would’ve thought that these Games would offer a perfect opportunity for the IOC to work with athletes to enhance exposure for the Olympic brand and each athlete’s brand or profile through the use of social media and Twitter.”

Waldie also interviewed fellow Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet, who said, “The IOC rules seem a little too strict and I think in future years we will look back and laugh at how strict they were.”

What do you think? Is the IOC being too strict? Do you think athletes and other participants will feel encouraged to provide an engaging and entertaining social media experience for their fans while being tightly gripped by the IOC? Share your thoughts.

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