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April 2, 2012

Bizball

Inside MLB’s Social Media Policy for Players

by Maury Brown

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If you haven’t gotten on the social media train, it’s left the station and then some. Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets for social media have become key communication platforms not only for fans, but for players, clubs, and leagues alike.

With that, you get a “good thing/bad thing” proposition. The good thing: players can now reach fans directly. The bad thing, well… players can now reach fans directly.

For leagues, this can create some difficulties. Having players interact with fans is a good thing. Of course, what a player says and how they address league matters can be anything but. At the extreme, players can use social media to vent about policy, calls by umpires, or say things that paint players in an unfavorable light. In that, a league’s social media policy is a tight-wire act.

On March 12, the league sent out the policy that is part of the new CBA (note: as of publication, the latest CBA is not available to the public, and according to league and MLBPA sources, it is not expected by Opening Day as proofing is still taking place) to all players on a 40-man roster. Having obtained a copy of it, the social media policy for the players is a “common sense” framework.

The policy was sent with a memo providing context. As noted within in it, the league sees social media as a double-edged sword if left as an unfiltered communications tool.

 “While having a Social Media policy is important to protecting the interests of everyone involved in promoting the game, we hope that you will not view this policy as a blanket deterrent to engaging in social media,” the memo reads. “MLB recognizes the importance of social media as an important way for players to communicate directly with fans. We encourage you to connect with fans through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Along with MLB’s extensive social media activities, we hope that your efforts on social media will help bring fans closer to the game and have them engaged with baseball, your club and you in a meaningful way.”

The memo then provides what they see as positives for player interaction:

  • Interacting with fans;
  • Sharing non-confidential information about you and your activities;
  • Highlighting charitable or promotional activity that you might be participating in on your own or in conjunction with Major League Baseball or your Club; and
  • Working with your management team or Club officials to conduct unique promotions that can provide your fans merchandise, tickets or unique experiences.

When it comes to the technical aspects of making this happen, however, there are some questions around certain parts of it. Within the actual policy, players are not allowed to link to (strangely enough) MLB.com content without proper authorization.

But other aspects make sense.

Players are not to display or transmit “content that contains confidential or proprietary information of any MLB Entity or its employees or agents, including, for example, financial information, medical information, strategic information, etc. “ This makes sense as a way of protecting the league. After all, things like contract negotiations shouldn't be done out in the open, and while having access to financial information of clubs might be good for holding clubs accountable, as we saw when financial information was leaked last year by Deadspin and The Associated Press, it can wreak havoc on the league. Having players leak such info would certainly be seen as a ‘no-no’ by the league.

There are other common sense provisions within this new social media policy as well. Let’s say that “Joe Player”, who fancies himself a joker and interacts on Twitter, decides to write, “Man, I need to work on my hitting for power. Maybe taking steroids isn’t such a bad idea. LOL!”

Now, maybe adding “LOL!” lends one to believe that Joe Player is joking, and maybe he is. But Bud Selig and the league take the drug policy seriously, and having a player joke about it isn’t something they want to see happen. Therefore, item five in the policy, under “Prohibited Conduct,” reads, “Displaying or transmitting Content that reasonably could be construed as condoning the use of any substance prohibited by Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.”

This is why the memo that came with the policy really speaks to social media in terms of “best practices.” Read these “think before you post” aspects included within the memo, and ask yourself if this isn’t something that really applies to most everyone that is of high visibility:

  • Just because you may be using your phone, a tweet is a public statement to a mass audience, not a private text message to a friend;
  • If you would not feel comfortable saying something at a press conference or seeing something attributable to you in a newspaper, you should refrain from posting any such messages, information or photos to social media;
  • Pause and think twice before sending a message across social media in the “heat of the moment”, i.e., if you are angry, emotional or reacting to a controversial news story, public event or something said or written about you; and
  • Once something is posted, you will not be able to retract it – once you hit send, your message becomes public information that can be forwarded and reported by the media.

That last bullet is something that those in the media have had to come to grips with. Blogs now see Twitter as a bonafide news vehicle. “Micro-blogging” through the likes of Twitter and Facebook provide content for stories as much as the larger stories that will eventually make their way to outlets such as Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, etc. We’ve already seen players break news before clubs do, especially in terms of reaching contracts out of free agency. Players have the power to communicate directly to fans and often catch their club or league off-guard as a result.

Social media has gotten more than one figure in trouble with the league.  Last season, before the new policy was put in place, Ozzie Guillen was given a two-day suspension and fined $50,000 after making comments on Twitter following an ejection. While it’s never been confirmed, the Marlins’ Logan Morrison was supposedly sent down to the minors last season due to his activity on Twitter. Now, he says he’s watching what he says more closely; "It's censored a bit, but not too much to give fans a sense of who I am," said Morrison to WPTV. And that’s the quandary.

It’s refreshing for players and managers to speak their mind. Heaven knows that comments Mets GM Sandy Alderson made on Twitter at the beginning of Spring Training while the club was still mired in the Madoff scandal gave some much needed levity. It was, after all, refreshing to see a front office exec actually have a personality. That’s something fans want to see, and it’s something that, from a marketability perspective, MLB has been lacking until recently.

Ask any media relations rep, though, and what they will tell you is that it’s their job to control the message. This is done to both protect and, sometimes, allow for matters to completely be fleshed out before getting information into the public’s hands. After all, more than one player contract has been on the cusp only to fall apart. Players, as unfiltered conduits, could unwittingly release info that, in the end, could be untrue.

The question then becomes whether MLB and the MLBPA have reached a policy that is heavy-handed? Will players simply become bland mouthpieces for the league, nothing more than promotion vehicles with no sense of personality? This has certainly happened with some media outlets that have created social media policies, and it’s likely to create a “better safe than sorry” environment for MLB’s players. After all, the social media policy for the players ends with this: “Enforcement: A Player who violates this policy may be subject to discipline for just cause by either his Club or the Commissioner in accordance with Article XII of the Basic Agreement.”

“Article XII” has not been made public yet, so we don’t yet know what that means, but “discipline for just cause” is likely fuzzy enough to keep all but the most outspoken from trying to test the boundaries of the policy. Let’s simply hope that players can keep interacting with fans through social media.  It’s a great view into the world of Major League players. If common sense rules the day, something more than having players as carnival barkers for the league’s agenda should happen… at least we can hope.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

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