Have you heard of Brandon McCarthy, Paul Bissonette, Pat McAfee, and Antonio Brown? If you're like most people, you probably haven't. We're not exactly talking about Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter here. Why would you know anything about a middle of the road starting pitcher, a left-winger with 5 career goals, a punter, and a wide receiver who has been a starter for exactly one season? If you happen to run an organization or handle public relations for an organization though, you should get to know them because there's plenty you can learn about communications, public relations, and branding from them.
Take a look at their Twitter feeds – they talk about partying, drinking, farts, pranks, and the women they go out with. They make fun of their teammates, curse, and share personal pictures. They're pretty much your typical PR person's worst nightmare. They don't speak in sanitized sports jargon ("we just took it one game at a time out there and gave it all we had"), they don't attempt to drive traffic to the team's website or sell merchandise, and they don't try to cultivate their "personal brands." They are, for better or worse, acting like themselves and talking to their fans on Twitter like they might talk with a group of their friends.
Thing is, they're GOOD at it. And the very reason they're good at it is because of, not in spite of, their complete and total disregard for traditional PR best practices. In the same way the Pittsburgh Penguins have actual players deliver season tickets to their fans, the Green Bay Packers players ride little kids' bikes to practice, or baseball players toss foul balls to their fans in the stands, these players aim to forge a personal connection with their fans. They're good at using Twitter because they're not interested in using it for PR or marketing or branding – they're using it simply because they enjoy interacting with their fans.
If you've read one of my favorite books, The Cluetrain Manifesto, you'll recognize that this desire to get beyond the marketing and the branding and speak in a human voice is one of the major tenets of the book.
"Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall."
Though this certainly applies to professional athletes and their fans, the ability to speak in a human voice and forge real relationships with your fans and customers is one that translates easily to the business world as well.
Do yourself a favor and check out the Twitter feeds for some of the less well-known athletes on Twitter and I bet you'll start re-thinking some of those PR and marketing best practices you've read about. What makes them so effective?
- They're honest. [tweet https://twitter.com/BizNasty2point0/status/168081177054412801] Politically correct? Ummm…not exactly. Honest? Definitely.
- They're real. [tweet https://twitter.com/Mrs_McCarthy32/status/171452231684591618] This is just one of many conversations between Brandon and his wife. This is a conversation I could totally see myself having with my wife too. Rather than just being some rich ballplayer living a life beyond my imagination, I've gotten a glimpse of him that I'd never get in an interview or on the back of a baseball card.
- They put their money where their mouth is. One of my favorite stories of the year was this one where Antonio Brown answered a fan's offer to go out to lunch which then led to an actual friendship. This is a story about a player going above and beyond what's expected of him. He realizes the esteem that his fans hold in him and
- They're funny. [tweet https://twitter.com/PatMcAfeeShow/status/166997616498974720] A little humor goes a long way – this particular Tweet was retweeted more than 50 times, but McAfee's feed is filled with funny Tweets like this.
- They're random. [tweet https://twitter.com/BizNasty2point0/status/167862185110941696] Somehow, I don't think this Tweet would have made it past the approval chain in a typical branding campaign. It doesn't direct anyone to a website, it doesn't hawk any merchandise, it's totally random and shows his followers a totally different side of himself.
Now think about your employees. Think about how (or even if) they're communicating with your customers. Are they allowed, nay, encouraged, to be honest, real, empowered, funny, and random or are they hampered by restrictive policies, approval processes, and message platforms? Instead of worrying about the damage your idiot employees will cause by using social media, maybe you should look into why you've hired and developed idiot employees? Instead of trying to mitigate the trouble they may get into, consider the opportunities that exist. Organizations have become so risk-averse so as to not offend anyone that they end up saying nothing to everyone.