Win the Internet or Lose Your Job: The Life of a Pro Sports Twitter Manager

Managing a pro sports team's Twitter account is a catch-22 that goes deeper than you realize. Here's a peek inside the lives of the people behind the tweets.

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May 5 2015, 2:16pm

After more than three years with the Houston Rockets, Chad Shanks was fired for one tweet. In a Q&A with Adi Joseph of Sporting News, Shanks said, "I wanted to take a jab at the Mavs (something I've done every so often with other teams), and that idea popped into my head. I meant it to just be a play on taking an old horse out to pasture that would get our fans even more pumped up and agitate Mavs fans."

Here's the tweet:

"I didn't think people would equate pretend violence on an emoji horse with actual violence on a real horse," Shanks went on to say. "That's not what I intended, but my job was to anticipate how these things would go over, and I failed."

Running a professional sports team's social media presence is a peculiar job that didn't exist a decade ago. The person in charge—usually someone not too far removed from college—must create the voice of a profit-seeking corporate entity with rabid, brand-loyal customers. Because the job is so new in a platform yet to be fully understood, social media operates anathema to the rest of the sports industry, where practice is dominated by an established tradition. For those who tweet, most everything is up to them, for better or worse.

"Man, the way I felt was like they were tossing me the keys to a social media Ferrari," Jerry Rizzo, former social media manager for the Philadelphia 76ers, told me. "There wasn't any defined strategy, but I could tell that they knew it was going to be important to start being more active in those social spaces."

Like almost every job in pro sports, running a team's social media presence demands grueling hours with little respite. Despite popular conception, it's not a lowly intern typing away, trying to come up with impressive zingers. "If you meet someone who 'does social' they are probably being modest," Rizzo said. "Social is an arm of the whole digital effort, so you play a big part in that. From day one I was green lighted to post. The guidance really was, 'If you have any doubts ask somebody.'"

Those who tweet are constantly chasing a moving target, and the consequences of missing the mark can result in a hasty dismissal. Well-regarded accounts have a humorous edge without crossing a line that becomes blurrier yet more severe by the day.

Aside from the long hours and heavy workload, this necessary navigation of a digital minefield makes the job appropriate for only a select few. Almost all of us are granted a few slip-ups at work from time to time, but social media managers may not get such leeway. With mistakes becoming viral news within minutes, organizations often feel the need to act quickly to quell a bubbling controversy, even if it means sacrificing an employee to the mob. All of these factors result in a bit of a catch-22.

Pat Donahue, the man behind the influential @LAKings Twitter account, embodies how pushing the envelope can be a career-maker, as he was recently named the 50th most powerful person in Los Angeles sports by the L.A. Daily News. But pushing the envelope can also get you fired, as Shanks found out. Sitting in a loud arena during the heat of the playoffs at the tail end of a third 16 hour day in a row, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the tweets that will be retweeted 13,000 times and the ones that will have you looking for a new job.

"You can 'win the internet' for an evening," Donahue told me, "or lose your job."

Team social media accounts didn't always generate this amount of interest. The earliest example of a tweet from a team account getting traditional media coverage was in 2012 by Donahue for the Kings' account, who were playing the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. The Kings were the heavy underdogs against the one-seeded Canucks. When the Kings took Game One, @LAKings tweeted:

By today's standards, this is a mild jostling at worst. But at the time, @LAKings was one of the only team Twitter feeds with any notion of humor or voice. The Vancouver tweet got picked up by the Vancouver Sun, Yahoo!, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. Of course, there was a person behind the feed, Pat Donahue. "It's completely harmless," Donahue said over email recently, "but man was it a big deal when it happened."

"Why was this outlandish?" Yahoo's Harrison Mooney wrote at the time. "First, because it originated with an official team Twitter feed, usually reserved for benign links from its website or ticket offers for fans. Second, because the Canucks are considered the most hated team in hockey, and the Kings' official Twitter feed kicked sand in their face on behalf of the rest of Canada."

As Mooney acknowledged, these were pretty flimsy excuses for outrage, but the backlash was severe enough that the Kings organization offered a "sorry you were offended" apology. To their credit, they never considered disciplining Donahue. "I'm lucky that our organization supports [me], and if you're going to push the envelope you have to understand that these things are going to happen and it isn't the end of the world."

Much of the outrage stemmed from differing perceptions on what a professional team account is actually for. As Mooney alluded to, most accounts stuck to bland play-by-plays and team trivia. With their prioritization of engagement, @LAKings still falls among the more kicked-back accounts (the current pinned tweet on their profile page includes a half-naked George Costanza photo). Donahue says they still get replies to their tweets telling them how "classless" they are.

"What teams are saying on social now, NO ONE did even just a few years ago," Donahue wrote to me. "I used to have the mindset of 'hey we're doing this, if I get fired, so be it.'" Now, so many teams have replicated Donahue's approach that he no longer views the job with such a cavalier attitude. Everyone's expected to have an edge. The question, of course, is how sharp should it be?

"We definitely want to take risks and be edgy, but we want to do it in a way that doesn't disrespect anybody," a social media manager for an NBA team who wished to remain anonymous told me. "There's a way to develop a fun voice on social media while still representing the values of your organization."

So what does the tweeting process look like? Well, it looks almost identical to your tweeting process. "There can't be an approval process in our industry because things are happening in real-time," says the NBA team's social media manager, "so I'm entrusted to represent the brand in the best way possible. We've had many talks within the organization about what not to post. No religion, no politics, no profanity, nothing that disrespects other teams or players. Basic things that most pro sports teams probably have. Beyond that it's just being smart and thinking through the best you can how this will reflect on the organization and the fans."

"People outside the sports world don't get it," Donahue explained. "They think there are checks and balances, and, 'oh how did this get approved!?' There is no time for that. It's in real time. The best tweets are the ones on the fly. Planned content rarely works, it's all about timing. If I think of something, I don't have time to send it to PR and wait for a yes/no, it needs to be now." A kind of "If you have to ask..." system has evolved, where any doubt means it stays in the drafts.

This kind of common sense sounds simple enough—most of us like to believe we have a well-calibrated social-acceptability barometer—but recall Shanks's tweet. It can be quite difficult to predict how the public will react, especially as one controversy influences another. The social media managers I talked to thought it was pretty clear Shanks was making a "horse out to pasture" joke, but the public didn't take it that way. As Donahue put it, "The craziest, or scariest, part of all this is you can write something, show it to three people, all agree it's a 'go' and then the internet gets it and it goes out of control. You can NEVER expect all the ways people will interpret what you say and take it out of context."

For his part, Donahue thought Shanks was put in a tough position. "'Hey we want you to be edgy!' 'WHOOAAAA too edgy!!' Maybe there was more behind this than just the one tweet? I'm not sure. The tweet was over the line, gotta stay away from using guns, but it was a joke. And he lost his job?" Rizzo also sympathized with Shanks. "It's not a good feeling to read things such as 'Which intern runs this account? Fire them!' coming into your feed from your followers."

The social media manager for the unnamed NBA team had a bit less sympathy for Shanks, believing it's part of the job description to know what tweets go too far and leave them in the drafts folder. "I don't think there was intent to offend, but unfortunately intent doesn't matter. Our job is to anticipate reaction from within the organization as well as with the public."

The fallout from Shanks's tweet encapsulated the ugly side of social media, but it's part and parcel with the eternal search for the internet win. All of those internet wins occur when people like Rizzo and Donahue see the line that is not to be crossed, sidle right up to it, and wink. It takes barely any movement at all to go too far.

"The reactions didn't surprise me," Rizzo sighed. "That's just what fans do."