ESPN's new social guidelines show right instincts

In the wake of a two-month period in which a pair of controversies around SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill created angst for the network, ESPN on Thursday released revised social media guidelines for its employees.

According to ESPN President John Skipper, the changes were not made specifically in response to the Hill incidents, but more because of what those controversies reflected.

“I think it’s prompted by the moment that we are having right now, and the political time and the polarization,” he said.

Skipper said that the guidelines -- first issued by ESPN in 2011, with slight revisions in 2012 -- were created under very different circumstances. At that time, the main concerns were about how ESPN handled breaking news and interactions with consumers and colleagues on social media, rather than the political context of posts. Now, the political and social issue elements are an unavoidable part of any social media platform, which has created challenges for ESPN.

The revised social media guidelines aren’t wildly different from the previous set, but the main change is the addition of a preamble that ties the policies to ESPN’s larger mission, something the previous policies did not.

“In going through a re-read of it and talking to people about it, while the previous ones were pretty sound, they may have felt a little wonkish and like policy speak,” Skipper said. “We wanted this to be more of a call to action and to sound like a human being actually wrote it.”

That preamble was authored by Kevin Merida, senior vice president and Editor-in-Chief of The Undefeated, who was part of the committee that revised the guidelines over the past few weeks. That preface lays out why the new guidelines are important to ESPN as an entity, not just to each individual posting on social media.

"ESPN has the greatest collection of sports journalists in the world, many of whom are influential on social media. We value the reputation you have helped us build, and preserving it is vital to our business. Our engagement on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be civil, responsible, and without overt political or other biases that would threaten our or your credibility with the public. Do nothing that would undercut your colleagues’ work or embroil the company in unwanted controversy. Apply to social platforms the same high standards, sound logic and common sense you employ on ESPN’s platforms. We reserve the right to take action for violations of these principles. At ESPN, we have a shared responsibility to one another that accompanies the benefits we collectively and individually enjoy. We respect your intelligence, champion your creativity and trust your best judgment."

I think this an important addition to the guidelines, even if there’s not a specific policy point included in the passage. The other option was to opt for a long, imposing, very specific set of guidelines that would likely have been impossible to police, and could have prompted ESPN staffers to decide social media wasn’t worth the effort. The tone of social media these days may be nastier than ever, but this too will likely pass, and -- even outside the minute-to-minute political wars being fought on Twitter and Facebook -- social media platforms remain very valuable ways for ESPN to build audience and loyalty. The preamble echoes what Skipper told me: “We really do trust people, and we want the standard to be: Be smart.”

The preamble also includes one very important new passage: “Do nothing that would undercut your colleagues’ work or embroil the company in unwanted controversy.”

The previous version of the policy mentioned only the broader ESPN universe as related to not publishing confidential material. Of course, whether something embroils ESPN in unwanted controversy is still in the eye of the beholder. But to me, acknowledging gray area is more honest and transparent than suggesting any set of rules can cover all the different scenarios that exist on social platforms.

“Ultimately, we’re in the judgment business,” Merida said. “Those who are active and prominent in social media need to use their judgment. That’s what journalism is: a series of judgments and discernments.”

Instead, the call to action here is for a better use of judgment, especially in the moment.

“You have to make peace with the fact that, even though it’s your account, it’s seen as an ESPN-linked account, and people will assume what we say is endorsed by the network,” said Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN senior investigative reporter. “It can hurt your ability to do your job, and there are consequences for all of your colleagues.”

Skipper also made an important point about the distinctions between different types of ESPN employees, whether they’re news reporters, columnists, commentators, former athletes, etc.

“Not everyone is a hard-news journalist but we would prefer that the organization, at all times, behave like a journalism organization,” he said.

Here are the key changes to ESPN’s social media policy:

“All social media activity by our journalists comes under these guidelines. Everything we post or comment on in social media is public. And everything we do in public is associated with ESPN.”

This is a sensible add, making it clear that any social media activity -- including posts on one’s “personal” Facebook page -- are to some degree public. Unlike on Twitter -- or at least using its default settings -- not everyone can what you post on Facebook. But it takes one person to screenshot any Facebook post to the world, so it makes sense to cover this reality.

“ESPN is a journalistic organization (not a political or advocacy organization). We should do nothing to undermine that position. We are committed to inclusion, tolerance and that which makes us different. But we must remember that public comments on social platforms will reflect on ESPN and may affect your own credibility as a journalist.

“ESPN’s focus is sports. While we acknowledge that our employees have interests beyond sports, it is essential that we not compromise our authority as the worldwide leader in sports coverage.

These additions really just tie together the network’s policies on social media and on political and social issues. But they are important because, as Skipper said, of the uniquely partisan times in which we’re living.

"You are strongly encouraged to seek advice from a trusted colleague or supervisor before tweeting or posting something that may conflict with our guidelines and damage your reputation. In the spirit of using these guidelines as a framework of support, there may be alternative actions or ESPN forums to accomplish the overall goal of your intended tweet or social post."

The previous policy said: “Prior to engaging in any form of social networking dealing with sports, you must receive permission from your supervisor. Personal Web sites and blogs that contain sports content or ESPN marks are not permitted.”

In addition to updating some of the dated terminology around digital media, this passage removes the word “permission,” and instead suggests getting advice from a trusted colleague or supervisor. This seems to suggest that full-on approval is no longer needed -- and, let’s be real, that level of approval isn’t happening now anyway -- and, again, asks journalists to stop, take a breath and determine whether posting is a good idea.

“Less is more, in some ways,” Merida said. “We took out things that were not as relevant now or were duplicative, and tried to insert a few other things. ... The main thing was a desire to say, ‘We’re in this together’ and the hope is people buy into that.”

In the case of the NFL-related tweets that led to Hill’s two-week suspension, I previously wrote that I didn’t understand what part of the policy Hill had violated. There’s still nothing explicit in the revised guidelines that she seemed to violate, though the “embroil the company in unwanted controversy” line certainly would apply -- which is why I think it’s an important addition.

I also wrote in my last column that my concern about Hill’s suspension was that the lack of explanation gave the impression that she was punished for criticizing an important business partner. Skipper said that was not the case.

“It’s fine, in a thoughtful manner and through an editorial process, to do and say things about our business partners,” he said. “Jemele was appropriately suspended, but she was not suspended because of a business partnership.”

While the changes to the policy were not massive, I think the instincts of those who put them together were right. The clarion call for thinking more broadly about the impact on the company and on colleagues makes sense, and the conclusion that trusting employees is better than a Byzantine web of policies matches the reality of the day-to-day digital world.

Or quite simply, as Van Natta put it, “When in doubt, don’t tweet it out.”