This summer there was a big hoopla on Twitter when Phoenix Coyotes left wing Paul Bissonnette unexpectedly (or expectedly depending on how you look at it) deleted his Twitter account @PaulBizNasty.  The departure from tweeting came after controversial remarks surrounding the announcement of Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract and its subsequent rejection by the NHL.  It was widely speculated that either the Coyotes or the NHL forced Bissonnette to delete the account, but when I questioned him on the subject his original reply was, “No comment. God I hate saying that. I miss it to. Tell everyone I love there support. It’s good for the fans. Get to know the players personality.”  He has since stated on his Facebook page (which has grown in friends exponentially to over 4,400 since the incident) that it was his agent who made him shut down the page and partnered with Sauce Hockey to create t-shirts with creative BizNasty slogans. Profits from the sales will be donated to Phoenix-area homeless shelters, as Bissonnette often expressed his love of “bums” on his Twitter account.

Bissonnette returned to Twitter at the start of the NHL season at @BizNasty2point0 and now has 16,662 followers. While the league, athletes and agents are constantly trying to figure out how to tap into the free advertising that social media provides and how to “do it right,” this incident plays back to the popular public relations mantra, “No publicity is bad publicity.”  If anything, Paul Bissonnette’s Twitter account is an example of how not to “do” social media. He is constantly offensive and far from politically correct.  However, the public reaction to the shutting down of his account proved that the fans crave a sort of “realness” from athletes, especially from hockey players, who have long been criticized for having no personality.  So where do we draw the line on what is appropriate?

The NHL GM’s meeting is today and one of the items on the table is the league’s social media policy, or lack thereof.  The NHL is the only major sports league that does not currently have a policy in place. Sports Business Daily recently held a roundtable of ten team and league executives to discuss the pros and pitfalls of social media. Most agreed that there are not yet strict policies in place, just “common sense” guidelines and a “we’ll know it when we see it” attitude to what athletes and team representatives should not do in the social space.  Regardless of guidelines or agreement on how to operate in the social space, it is evident that everyone agrees on the importance of existing in social media, as it is something that appeals to the fans. While in some cases, it has not translated to dollar-for-dollar ROI, the “behind the scenes” look at a team or athlete definitely enhances the experience for fans. Melissa Brenner, Vice-President of Marketing for the NBA said, “Whatever trepidation we might or might not have had at first was outweighed by the fans’ fervor for this.”

It will be interesting to see how new policies develop and change over time among the professional sports leagues and teams. One can certainly hope that restrictions don’t take away the inside look at player’s personalities, as in my opinion, that is what makes social media unique. I had the opportunity to talk to one of hockey’s best Twitter personalities this summer, goalie for the Albany Devils, Mike McKenna. Mike has done a fabulous job of growing his fan base through Twitter (@MikeMcKenna56), but also occasionally guest blogs on goalie-specific topics for InGoalMag. McKenna actually started using Twitter for the same reason that hockey fans are using it…to follow a favorite sport (in his case Indy car racing). He now has over 2,400 followers and Tweets regularly. He joined Twitter completely on his own.  McKenna said, “it’s a terrific way to engage and interact with fans, and that’s a high priority for me.  I make a point of being involved in whatever community I am playing in, and Twitter is just an extension of that.” This summer he even ran a contest via Twitter for his followers to help him choose a new design for his goalie pads. Although he says the pads that were selected weren’t his personal favorite initially, nearly 400 people voted and he wears the pads proudly. He hopes fans who voted can look at his gear and say “I had a part in choosing that!”

The great thing about Mike McKenna is that he is extremely aware of how social media can build or damage an athlete’s personal brand. When asked about why he uses it, McKenna responded, “I believe Twitter is more than a social networking platform.  For professional athletes and people with a modicum of celebrity, it’s also a personal marketing device.  I started Tweeting because it was fun and useful, but over time I have seen the professional benefits associated with it.  Although I truly enjoy interacting with my followers, I also realize that having an account aids in creating a personal fanbase.  In the sports world, a good reputation goes a long way, and presenting yourself in an interesting yet calculated manner on Twitter can only help.  With that knowledge comes the realization that self-censoring must happen constantly.  I have very strong political and religious opinions but I shy away from such topics.  I’d hate to alienate a fan purely based on beliefs. All too often, the only way fans get to know players is through media interviews, which very rarely show off the player’s true personality.  Twitter is pretty much the antithesis of that.”

Another big proponent of Twitter is agent, Scott Norton of Norton Sports. Norton encourages all of his clients to “get active with social media, as long as they will do so in a professional manner.  I know that both Twitter and Facebook can help any of the players from a PR and marketing standpoint, and am willing to assist them in the process.” Norton acknowledges that although he helps his athletes with setup and the technology, everything they post is their own.  One of Norton’s star clients Dustin Brown launched his DLo23 line with Combat Sports this summer and most of the promotion for the event was handled through the use of social media. Norton’s latest project launched with the help of social media is “Make My Day Monday, ” in which people are encouraged to take some time out of their lives each Monday to make an impact, no matter how big or small, on someone else’s life. This initiative has gotten a lot of press for Norton Sports and its clients and already made a big difference in the lives of many. Followers from everywhere Tweet in each Monday things they have done with the hashtag #MMDM, ranging from donating money to a cause to simply giving a coworker a ride home from work to help out.  Norton Sports also partnered with State Street Sports to host the first ever “Make My Day Monday” event in October.

As the public craving for the look inside the lives of professional athletes grows, it is in the professional league’s best interest to create rules, but not make them too restrictive. If athletes are not able to let their personalities show through in their use of social media, it will lose its appeal. Fans love social media because it gives them a chance to identify with their favorite athletes and realize that these guys are human beings, most with similar interests and concerns. In addition, the power of using social media and celebrity to do good can not be overlooked. After all, didn’t you get your “BizNasty Feeds the Homeless t-shirt?” I bought two…one for a friend for #MMDM.

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