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Digital challenges to protect reputations in sport – British Library, 9th November 2017

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An internal shot of The British Library

On 9th November 2017 we hosted our annual event to discuss protecting reputations in sport at the British Library in London. The event, attended by a number of Premier League football clubs, player organisations and governing bodies, focused this year on digital challenges.

Appearing alongside our Managing Director, Matt Himsworth, was Benedict Hamilton, a Managing Director in Investigations and Disputes at Kroll and Giles Kenningham, David Cameron’s former PR adviser who is now heading up his own agency Trafalgar Strategy. The whole event was expertly compered by BBC Sport broadcaster Kris Temple.

The discussions that took place were very much under Chatham House rules but we have set out below some of the key points from Matt Himsworth’s session on the communication behaviours of modern sportspeople.

The lifecycle and communications of a modern sportsperson

Almost every reputational disaster, or attack on the private life of a sportsperson, involves social or digital media.

The main challenge is to help the sportspeople that we support and nurture to understand, not just the technology, but also to have an appreciation of the behaviours, incentives and motivations of those that they interact with. The way to achieve that, or work towards achieving that, is to create a culture that is risk averse, defensive and respectful.

Conversations need to start as early as possible. In our experience young people are using Smartphones from as early as 9. Access to a Smartphone means access to social media, whether endorsed by parents or not.

Online security continues to be one of the most prominent issues. Our social media accounts and email addresses are under daily attack. If an individual believes he/she is old enough to have a social media account then the real test (in our view) is whether he/she is mature enough to understand and to employ two factor authentication on his/her accounts. Twitter has started to require all those seeking a verified account to have two factor authentication on their account. This needs to become the norm.

Culturally humans have always wanted to advertise their achievements and the things and people they are proud of. Our younger generation is presented with heroes like David Beckham who is proud and open about his family. The trouble with this is that this generation do not have the benefit of a security detail like the Beckhams. The temptation to tell the world what school you are at, where you grew up, who your girlfriend is, the social media usernames your parents use and any other piece of detail about your private life, means that young sportspeople are providing a vast menu of information which could lead them to be vulnerable to social engineering and associated security risks. Undoing private information which has been overshared is not an easy task. One example shared on the day was a professional football player whose wife had shared many baby photos of their first born but later decided to keep the family private. Removing images which the player and his wife owned the copyright in was possible (though time consuming). What was more difficult was removal of images taken of the child on the pitch after a game. The copyright in those images was not owned and the photographs were taken in a very public place.

Because players are creating an online profile from a young age there is a need for players to “do a tidy up” as early as possible. The media is full of stories of old social media posts coming back to haunt people who are now in the public eye. Those who are preparing for a career in professional sport would be well-advised to ensure their profile is as discreet and safe as possible.

Our session also highlighted new challenges:

For clubs and organisations the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) loom large. Companies must put best procedures in place when it comes to customer / fan data but this also applies to employees and players. The key is to take action and not to freeze. The new GDPR rules will come into place in May 2018 (and Brexit will not prevent this). This means that procedures and adequate consents need to be put into place now so that clubs and organisations can continue to support and help the players under their care. The biggest mistake would be to assume that the club or organisation should stop processing data. This would remove the essential help, care and support that players need.

For sportspeople we are warning that they need to be increasingly aware of copyright (both in terms of others breaching their copyright when their photos and videos go viral but also in making sure they do not use and abuse photographs and videos owned by others) but also advertising. The Advertising Standards Agency are taking a closer and closer look at social media advertising and it is easy to see the ASA’s PR wheels grinding into motion with recent news stories such as this.