What ESPN’s Suspension of Jemele Hill Means for Your Brand’s Social Media Guidelines

espnWe’re deep in month 10 of the Trump administration, and it’s playing out as expected. As it was during the 2016 election, public discourse continues to be bitter, divisive and full of rage, and it’s putting brands and individuals in difficult situations. The crux of the issue for brands: We have free speech in this country, yet brands are also free to set limits on acceptable behavior and to suspend or fire employees.

If you’re wondering how important this issue is, just ask an executive at ESPN. A few days ago the sports programming company suspended SportsCenter co-host Jemele Hill for a series of tweets on Oct. 8 from her own Twitter account in which she suggested boycotting the Cowboys and the advertisers that support the team, after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, in effect, that any Cowboys player who took a knee during the national anthem would not be allowed to play in an NFL game.

 

That led to this tweet, from ESPN:

    And, finally, this, from President Trump:        

As ESPN’s statement points out, this was Hill’s second violation of the company’s social media guidelines in a span of a few weeks. On Sept. 11 she had called Trump a white supremacist in a tweet. This led to a sit-down at ESPN that included Hill and top executives, after which she wrote on ESPN’s The Undefeated, “It was the first time I had ever cried in a meeting. I didn’t cry because [ESPN president John] Skipper was mean or rude to me. I cried because I felt I had let him and my colleagues down. Since my tweets criticizing President Donald Trump exploded into a national story, the most difficult part for me has been watching ESPN become a punching bag and seeing a dumb narrative kept alive about the company’s political leanings.”

Her Oct. 8 tweets picked up the “national story” where she had left it off. What she might not have considered—and what played into her suspension—is that some of the Dallas Cowboys’ sponsors are ESPN’s sponsors as well. From ESPN’s viewpoint, it was a case of a media company’s employee calling for a boycott of that company’s own sponsors.

You may be asking, what specific language in ESPN’s social media guidelines did Hill violate? How can any social media guideline anticipate this scenario? Short of being able to provide a copy of the company’s guidelines, I can tell you that they boil down to “if you wouldn’t say it on our TV or website screens, don’t say it in social.”

That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, especially in today’s highly charged climate, but it’s a rule of thumb most of us understand. We all know it’s much easier and safer to express fury and strong opinions on social media than it is to express them in face-to-face situations or on, say, national television. But still—there’s that gray area between personal expression in one’s own social media accounts and one’s responsibility to an employer.

ESPN’s Skipper tried to address this gray area in a note to employees on Sept. 15, just a few days after Hill’s “white supremacist” tweet. “ESPN is not a political organization,” Skipper wrote. “Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express. At the same time, ESPN has values…We had a violation of those standards in recent days and our handling of this is a private matter.  As always, in each circumstance we look to do what is best for our business. In light of recent events, we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.”

This attempt at clarity didn’t prevent Hill from her tweeted suggestion on Oct. 8 of a boycott of the Cowboys’—and, unwittingly, ESPN’s—advertisers.

This is a new environment we’re moving in, as individuals and as organizations. Many of us are grappling with it. Unfortunately for Jemele Hill and ESPN, they’re grappling with it on a global stage and tangling with the president of the United States.

It’s been a learning process for ESPN and, no doubt, for Hill, and for every brand that’s been watching this play out. “Every company is learning how to evolve in a brand new and very fluid world, and sometimes that process can be complicated,” Chris LaPlaca, SVP, corporate communications for ESPN, told me a couple of days after Hill’s suspension.

Reflecting on Hill’s suspension, another brand communicator, Miri Rodriguez, storyteller for Microsoft, told me that it’s getting more difficult to navigate the blurred lines between personal and professional representation on social channels. “In today’s world, someone’s digital personal brand is no longer defined by that person’s own determination and parameters of what freedom of speech constitutes but instead by her digital audiences and, if employed, by the brand she represents professionally,” she said. “This may be unfortunate, but the reality is that after the birth of social media, organizations were forced to rethink how an employee reflects the brand’s culture and values and created guidelines to ensure brand reputation was protected. Whether right or wrong, if you decide to work for an organization, you are expected to respect and abide by their established guidelines and that includes social media.”

Rodriguez’s underlying point is that, yes, we still have freedom of speech in the U.S., but each individual’s digital audience—and that can include one’s own employer, hateful trolls (both domestic and foreign) and, sometimes, the White House—has equal and perhaps greater power to strike back.

Try working that into your social media guidelines.

—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI