The St. Louis Rams' selection of Michael Sam in the 7th round of the NFL draft on Saturday was the culmination of a storyline that has had PR professionals collectively holding their breath since February, when Sam publicly announced that he's gay. Sam, who won awards for his defensive prowess on the football field in college, immediately became one of the highest-profile NFL prospects after his announcement. Ahead of the draft, it seemed almost inevitable that following his probable selection someone, somewhere would end up in crisis and apology mode for comments made regarding Sam's sexuality.
That other shoe dropped almost immediately after the Rams picked Sam on Saturday.
After receiving a phone call from Rams coach Jeff Fisher informing him of his selection, a visibly emotional Sam turned to his boyfriend and kissed him. The moment, which was televised on ESPN, prompted Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones to express his objections by tweeting "horrible" and "OMG."
The Dolphins quickly responded by ordering Jones to participate in "training for his recent comments made on social media" and levying an undisclosed fine. Jones apologized on Sunday, as did Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin.
Former Houston Texans running back Derrick Ward also took to Twitter to express his disapproval with Sam, saying, "I'm sorry but that Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national TV." Ward then went into full-blown Twitter tirade mode, later adding, "Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can't believe ESPN even allowed that to happen."
If this sounds like a story you've heard before, that's because it probably is. Organizations, especially professional sports teams, have struggled with making sure that their employees don't get the company in trouble with the thoughts they express over personal social media accounts.
In order to avoid being the next organization to have to issue an abashed press release apology, PR practitioners need to work to make sure that social media user policies are in place, fully understood by employees and stricly enforced.
Here's where to start when devising a social media user policy, courtesy of Carolyn Mae Kim, public relations faculty at Biola University in the department of journalism and integrated media:
In any community, there should be clear guidelines regarding expectations, consequences and standards. This is precisely what a user policy does in the world of social media. In order to equip your social media platforms to withstand a crisis, you’ll need several kinds of policies in place.
- Internal employee social media policy. This policy covers your employees' personal social media usage. Employee social media policies are a significant area of focus for companies, as too many violate employee rights. Rather than crafting a “controlling” policy, your goal should be to empower employees. They can be the strongest brand ambassadors. Just make sure they are aware of the situation and clear on their outlets that they do not speak for the company while making sure they have access to information to point people in the right direction.
- Internal social media policy. This policy relates to how employees who are managing the brand’s social media can interact. In times of crisis, your employees will use this as their roadmap for how to respond. This plan should clarify who needs to approve posts, particularly in crisis. It should include legal considerations and parameters specific to crisis situations.
- Community user policies. These policies are the kind that relate to the way the general public interacts on your social media platforms. For instance, what kind of language will you allow on your Facebook wall? The community policy is designed to make everyone feel welcome, respected and able to share perspectives. If your organization waits until it is in a crisis to create and enforce a community policy, it will appear that you only did it to control conversations.
Follow Brian Greene: @bwilliamgreene