What Should Sports Legends Challenge Do Now? (or “How Do You Recover From Complete and Total Social Media Disaster?”)
Last month, I laid out the massive unethical social media and online community marketing campaign being executed by Sports Legends Challenge, an upcoming poker tournament that has major athletes (like Jim Brown, Joe Namath, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Troy Aikman and Tony Hawk) and sponsors (like JetBlue, Fox Sports Radio and the Visa Black Card) associated with it.
I’m not going to rehash the gory details here – please read the original post for all of the information. From spamming hundreds of forums and social sites to intimidation via Twitter and deceptive marketing – it’s all there.
Since it was published, I’ve received a lot of traffic to the post from the Atlanta area, where the company is based, including someone who was searching for my home address. I had a phone conversation with Bruce Bibbero, the CEO of the company, that was mixed at best. Though he suggested it would be investigated, I’ve heard and seen nothing of this. In fact, just the opposite. The past damage remains and new damage continues to be made. Just on Friday, I (of all people in the world – me) received an unsolicited e-mail advertisement from the company (screenshot).
So, I got to thinking. If I was Sports Legends Challenge or, better yet, I was someone that Sports Legends Challenge turned to, to clean up this mess, what would I do? For added perspective beyond my own, I reached out to a few friends who I knew would be able to provide me with valuable insight.
They are Brandon Eley, Interactive Director at Kelsey Advertising & Design, founder of online shoe retailer 2BigFeet.com and co-author of “Online Marketing Inside Out”; Jeremy Wright, CEO at digital strategy agency netmobs, co-founder of b5media and author of “Blog Marketing”; Jason Falls, principal at Social Media Explorer and Martin Reed of community management blog Community Spark and the administrator of the JustChat.co.uk, Female Forum and Soap Forum communities.
“There’s, sadly, a certain side of this that is… awe inspiring,” Jeremy tells me, talking via e-mail. “It’s like the PR company for iPhone developers that turned dozens of apps into sensations and generated millions in new sales through underhanded techniques. They’re being paid to get X result, and the client doesn’t ask why, but is very happy when they get X result times 10. Part of the problem, I think, is that clients don’t ask questions when the results are good enough, so agencies learn that results matter more than anything else. Forgiveness is more important than permission.”
The marketing for Sports Legends Challenge, from all appearances, has been in house and, even if it wasn’t, that wouldn’t take the responsibility away from the company.
“I think some companies also think this kind of behavior is okay, as long as folk don’t find out,” Jeremy adds. “My guess is they start on a slippery slope of paying for opinions, then paying regular folk to make up opinions, then spinning significant fiction to support those opinions, as happened here.”
As they engage in more and more suspect activities and continue to push the envelop, more and more activities become acceptable and justifiable.
“At each step, not only is that step logical, but they figure that if someone found out a bit about it, they wouldn’t mind much,” he says. “Companies will be companies after all. It’s only when, A, someone finds out about everything or, B, they start to have to defend the lies with more lies; that things get out of hand. In effect, companies forget that if you’d be ashamed of someone finding out the entire extent of your program, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
In light of this, the first thing that needs to happen is for them to realize that what they are and have been doing is simply wrong and admit to it. Right now, the company has fostered a culture of unethical marketing and if there is to be any change of tide, they have to understand that these tactics are not acceptable.
“I think the first and most important thing the company would need to do in this situation is admit to the wrong doing,” Brandon said. “Publicly and from the very top of the company – otherwise it would have no weight whatsoever. They need to acknowledge that they had been a part of unethical, and possibly illegal marketing tactics.” All of us agree that they need to apologize in a public fashion.
“The first thing I would recommend is for them to set up a page on their website that apologizes for the errant behavior of people who were approaching the social media space on their behalf, but doing so in a very commercial and spam-laden way,” Jason says. “They should say they recognize that is not the appropriate way to get the word out to interested people about their event and they are sorry for the intrusion before. I would also recommend they ask anyone experiencing any further spam related to their event to report it in the comments of that page so they can address it swiftly.”
“They need to explain why they acted in that way,” suggests Martin. “Company policy? Their own idea? Then they need to explain how they are going to move forward from here. An apology only goes so far – they need to assure people that they won’t continue to do this in the future. It may be hard convincing people, but they need to try.” Brandon feels that a video apology would help, as well, perhaps containing mentions of the communities that were affected.
Beyond just apologizing generally, they need to reach out to those that they spammed or took advantage of and apologize to them directly and clean up their mess. This will be an arduous process where they need to track down as many of the people they spammed as possible, likely through the help of search engines and those who did the spamming. But, it won’t be much more arduous than the act of spamming was, in the first place. They can start with all of the sites mentioned in my post.
Once these sites are located, they need to e-mail or otherwise contact the owner of the site or the staff, explain what they did, link to their spam and apologize, taking full responsibility for the intrusion. They should politely request that the spam be removed and apologize for wasting the time of the community’s staff.
It’ll never be fully cleaned up, but once drastic measures have been taken to fix the majority of these mistakes, they need to do everything that they can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Brandon suggests the drafting of marketing guidelines for all employees and agents to follow. These would outline precisely what are and are not acceptable marketing tactics. And then, they need to make sure that those guidelines are closely followed.
Beyond a wholesale clean up and apologies, what else can they do, to not only make amends, but to go further and hopefully start to build a positive relationship?
“I would recommend that they make up for the intrusion on the social media community by providing something of value back to the community,” Jason says. “Maybe it’s some exclusive poker tips from the celebrities involved, a certain number of free tickets to the event or even credit on a poker site they’re associated with. A make-nice is warranted. The more engaging it is and more excited it gets people, the better.”
He even feels that they could turn this around from being an excellent example of the absolute wrong way to market an event, to being a leader in acceptable and ethical marketing practice.
“If they really want to go the extra mile, they should take a vocal and public stand – even a leadership role – in helping identify and weed out poker and casino-related spam marketers out there,” he elaborates. “Aside from pharmaceutical messaging and adult entertainment websites, poker sites are perhaps the most notorious online spam purveyors out there. The only way the poker or casino industry is going to clean up their act online is if someone from inside the industry takes a stand and leads the charge. That is the single-biggest area of impact Sports Legends Challenge can make with this. If they do, they’ll get a ton more customers than if they keep up the unwanted, intrusive spam.”
But, will it be enough? I think we all agree in saying that none of this makes up for the damage they’ve done, but that it could put them on the road of responsibility, allowing people to see them in a better light and, perhaps, in time, be thought of in a good way.
“In my opinion, the reputations of these individuals have been shot to pieces,” Martin says. “Do they even have a reputation? They need to work hard to get it back, or just start over from scratch. Either way, they need to recognize their error and radically change the way they do business. Over time, hopefully people will come to trust them again. If not, it just goes to show that reputation is hard to build, but easy to destroy.”
“When companies screw up this badly, there is no quick fix to it,” Jeremy concurs. “What I mean is that when a company screws up a little bit, they could have bought an ad, publicly apologized, flown some bloggers out or something that showed ‘contrition.’ This works for things that are the equivalent to breaking your neighbor’s window when you’re a kid. I think there are also some reasonably quick ways to deal with situations that are more ‘you killed your neighbor’s cat.’ A bit more effort and time would be required, but we’re talking weeks, not months or years.”
“However, if you accidentally blow up your neighbour’s house? Well, that’s what this is like, and that’d take a lot more than just contrition or some reparations to make that relationship positive again. It’d take a complete reimagining of how you two interact, for a significant period of time.”