Will England’s players miss Twitter?

Mark Terry-Lush, founder and director at Renegade Media, debates if the England players are any worse off by being banned from using Twitter at the World Cup.

Mark Terry Lush
Mark Terry Lush

So Fabio Capello has banned his stars from their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages for the duration of next month’s football World Cup.

In fairness to the Italian, the decision was most probably taken by one of the FA’s media handlers; the same handlers who recently strangled at birth his potentially lucrative player ratings service.

But much like the ’English disease’ that was football hooliganism a few years back, putting the boot into social media seems to have spread across Europe.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has stopped his players from using their social networking sites too, citing the desire for “no distractions” during the tournament.

In many respects, the move is just a logical extension of Sven Goran Eriksson’s ban on his players writing articles for newspapers during the last World Cup. It just takes into account developments in media.

You can see why they’ve done it. Dropped player reveals to opposition he’s not playing (for which read Darren Bent) or candid admission hints at disunity (that’ll be you John Terry) and starts media witch-hunt etc.

And for those with little interest in the ramblings of some of our more cerebrally-challenged footballers, it is probably reason to celebrate.

Yet the implications for marketing practitioners such as ourselves, not to mention wider notions of freedom of speech and employer/employee relations are worth thinking about.

Here at Renegade Media we’ve advised, set up and Tweeted on behalf of Manchester United and other Premiership stars this season. Given Alex Ferguson’s famously fiery dislike of the phenomenon, our player comments have sailed under the radar using a sponsor as a flag of convenience.

Not all sports organisations are as prescriptive. When we Tweeted on behalf of former England rugby union internationals and advised a former captain on the nuances of successful Twitter engagement there was no rumblings at all from the RFU.

Cards on the table therefore, we have a vested interest in this ban. Yet don’t all marketers?

And don’t all lovers of free speech and an unfettered media for that matter, without wishing to sound unnecessarily dramatic about it?

Isn’t direct censorship of this kind, particularly in the days of the Freedom of Information Act, something we used to cock a snoop at the Soviet Union over, tutting at their politburos and Pravda-led pronouncements?

If the Football Association can stop their employees using social media (in their own time presumably, given the difficulty of tweeting during an international football match) why can’t others?

We can laugh at the Luddite tendencies and their fear of new technology and what it might reap, but the truth is we are entering dangerous waters here.

There may even be a series of battles to be fought between those who want to retain the independence and freedom of Twitter and Facebook and those whose aim is to suppress them.

Will a day come – in football perhaps, as it did with Jean-Marc Bosman’s challenge that changed employment law forever – when an employee challenges his employer over their ban on social media?

Surely it’s as logical a next step as England getting knocked out of the World Cup via a penalty shoot-out?

Love it or loathe it – and I swing from one to the other in truth – I know whose side on behalf I’d be taking up arms.

There is a distinct usefulness to social media in general and Twitter in particular.

Unlike the decisions taken by the FA and their Spanish counterparts it is inherently democratic.

As consumers we can filter feed the media we want, digesting the pronouncements of celebrities and companies we chose to follow and spitting out those who aren’t to our taste.

It is a credible, accountable and trusted marketing channel – particularly among the younger generation whose income we are all looking to court.

Not only that, it is a minute-by-minute barometer of what is hot and what is not. Nothing is quite so immediate.

Capello and del Bosque may have legitimate ’crisis management’ reasons for taking the heat out of a potential PR disaster, but we should all fear the big freeze.

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