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Clubs ask prospects to be active online

Minor Leagues urged to forge their own path in social media
December 3, 2012
The increased popularity of social media sites such as Twitter has led Major and Minor League communications directors and front-office staffers to revisit their message to Minor Leaguers about their behavior and reputation.

Between cameras on smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle, organizations know that even the most highly touted prospect is only one careless pose or one hastily posted message away from being at the center of an irreversible media storm.

Teams generally let their players have carte blanche over what Tweets get sent to followers. And, though some clubs may have more policies or guidelines than others, Major League Baseball did send out its thoughts as part of last year's collective bargaining agreement.

Among the restrictions are bans on illegal, sexually explicit or harassing behavior. There are prohibitions on making what could be seen as official club or league statements as well as questioning umpires' integrity.

Jonathan Gantt, the Rays' coordinator of communication, said the team has a laissez-faire approach to social media. He said players only receive guidelines before the season on how to get the most out of sites like Twitter by reaching out to fans.

"We don't have any special policies or rules or anything like that," he said. "We feel like it is best to have these guys learning how to be professional baseball players, and social media is a big part of how they interact with fans."

While players are free to post as much or as little as they like, Gantt says the team has a pretty good idea what is happening online. The organization maintains a database of its players and their corresponding social media accounts.

"By staying up to date with it and on top of it, we can learn about the newest outlets so we can help our players out," he said. "We just have to make sure that we cover our bases to make sure that everything being said does not portray our organization unfairly."

Mets vice president of media relations Jay Horwitz said players, especially high-profile prospects, just need to exercise common sense.

"There are no policies. We have people in the organization who talk to the guys and say, 'Be smart in what you Tweet because it can wind up all over America.' If you're Tweeting to a friend, it has the chance to go every place. We ask them to understand that once you put a uniform on, people are watching. What we tell them is that a simple Tweet can wind up in every paper in the country."

In Kansas City, Royals vice president of communications and broadcasting Mike Swanson described keeping up with social media as "learning on the fly."

Swanson, who just completed his 34th year in the Majors and his sixth with the Royals, is a self-described "dinosaur." Though admittedly not as tech-savvy as some of his younger colleagues or peers, he said he has a great team around him to help protect his players.

"It's such a hard thing to be a baseball player or anybody in a public forum anymore," Swanson said. "Back when I broke into the game, guys could get away with so much because there were no cell phone cameras or Twitter people around to mark their every move. Now if you're recognized, somebody is going to say they saw you in a restaurant, then somebody will say they saw you in a restaurant at the bar, then somebody will say they saw you at the bar with someone you shouldn't be with. There are so many things that can happen now."

Gantt said every organization has probably had to deal with a situation in which it needed to ask a player to delete a post, but he suggested that this would often be more proactive than reactive. For example, players in the Rays organization are advised not to share photos taken in the clubhouse, just in case there is something inappropriate in the background, like a teammate getting dressed.

"Fans have a direct channel to players now and we don't want to do anything to stand in the way of how genuine that connection can be," said Gantt, who admitted it is impossible to monitor every Tweet, retweet, photo, meme and message. "We try not to be too overbearing. It's all about empowering and educating them in the best way we can.

"Everything has a much quicker cycle and everything happens faster nowadays, but in our organization, we pride ourselves on treating them like adults. They're responsible enough and they want to represent themselves well."

Swanson meets with up to 160 Minor Leaguers twice a year, during Spring Training or the instructional league. Here, Swanson reiterates what he calls "teachings and instructions," not "policies."

"I speak with them about all of the evils of being a professional, which stretches the norm from social media to how to deal with the media and interacting with fans and signing autographs and being an all-around good citizen and giving people a reason to like you," he said.

"Over the last couple years, I have had to change my presentation from year's past because I've had to include the social media forum. The biggest thing I tell them is to use their head ... to read it and re-read it and not just punch in words and hit send because you're passionate about something. I correlate typing a message on Twitter or Facebook or any other social media site to pulling the trigger on a gun. Once you hit the send button, it's gone and it's never coming back. Whatever damage gets inflicted, you can't take back."

At the Minor League level, affiliates are often encouraged to run their own social media sites with little, if any, oversight from the big league club.

Philadelphia's Double-A affiliate, recently rebranded as the Reading Fightin Phils, operates its own social media networks independent from the Phillies, says the team's director of public and media relations Eric Scarcella.

"We've never been specially told how to use social media or what [Philadelphia] wants us to use it for," Scarcella said. "We just try to use our own judgement."

The then-Reading Phillies have had a Facebook page since 2008, but it was only last year that the club became active on the site and refined its strategy on how to get the most from the social network. Similarly, the team's first Twitter account only really came to life in the past 12 months even though it was created several years earlier, and it wasn't until Thanksgiving that the team signed up on Instagram.

"It's necessary to keep yourself relevant," said Scarcella, "especially during the offseason when it's hard to keep yourself in the limelight. But heading into 2013, we want to be more introspective in using the number of people liking us and following us to get our messages out. If you're not engaging these people, it is all for naught."

With many Minor League affiliates operating under similar situations, it's no longer just the teams in the big cities that have to be on guard for negative publicity. Social media has given almost unprecedented access to reporters, whether they're beat reporters at a small local paper or a national columnist for a leading online site.

Mets pitching prospects Zack Wheeler -- whose online following skyrocketed after being traded from San Francisco -- and Matt Harvey already have a combined 33,350 followers on Twitter. First-rounders Brandon Nimmo and Gavin Cecchini -- ranked sixth and seventh among the Mets' Top 20 prospects -- are up to over 6,450 between them, despite neither having played above Class A Short-Season Brooklyn.

"If you're affiliated with the New York Mets, it's a major market," said Horwitz, adding the team fully supports players reaching out to interact with fans online. "All our beat guys follow the kids in the Minors, especially the higher profile guys. If you want to Tweet general stuff or fun stuff about your favorite football game, that's OK, but just understand some messages could come back to haunt you. If we find something we don't like, we'll send a message to them. They just have to be on guard that a single wrong Tweet can cause a lot of problems."

Few, if any, teams have had to deal with a PR crisis stemming from something a prospect has Tweeted. But the fear of this alone has some teams asking staff members to monitor the social media channels. In Kansas City, Swanson is not alone in keeping up with the day-to-day grind of monitoring his prospects' feeds.

David Holtzman, the Royals' director of media relations, and Erin Sleddens, the director of online and target marketing in the team's business development department, also keep tabs on their prospects.

"I'm not an 'I-told-you-so guy,' I just want have them be cognizant of it when they're put in what could be awkward situations," said Swanson, who said it's not worth the bad publicity to tell one of the players to shut down his account. "There are a lot of people out there who want to love you, but there are also some people who are jealous and want to take you down. We want to prevent that happening to one of our guys."

Swanson also pointed out that even innocuous Tweets, like congratulating a teammate on a promotion, can sometimes cause problems.

"You think it would be a great thing to congratulate him, but if the club hasn't announced the promotion, it starts a real storm with the media," he explained. "There are still a lot of chips that have to fall before that promotion takes place. Because whoever gets promoted is probably taking somebody else's place, and that puts a lot of people on edge at the next team.

"The media is very good, they're very sharp at following every one of our guys with a Twitter account, even in the Minor Leagues. They'll see something come across Twitter that a player has been promoted to Omaha or been promoted to Kansas City and it starts a little bit of a firestorm.

"Then the phone calls come in -- Who's getting sent down? Who's getting released? Who's been traded? Players should not be in a position to announce the news. We do it at a special time for a reason because a lot of things have to fall into place."

As a result, Reading's Scarcella takes precautions to ensure he doesn't share any time-sensitive news before Philadelphia has made a public announcement.

Though he may be limited about what he can share -- and when -- about roster moves and transactions, he can interact with fans in other ways.

One of the more popular examples from 2012 was the "Babe Ruf" moniker surrounding slugger Darin Ruf, who broke Ryan Howard's 8-year-old club record of 37 homers in a season. "It was pretty organic," said Scarcella. "Once the players started calling him Babe Ruf, it was so ridiculous that we had to capitalize on it. We wanted to get him the popularity that he deserved."

What started as a inside joke between players quickly went viral. T-shirts and memes soon followed, and the communications and PR staff at FirstEnergy Stadium were at the heart of it.

"We're maybe an hour in traffic from Philadelphia, so when something big happens in Lehigh Valley or Reading, people start to notice," said Scarcella. "Minor League Baseball has really found success on the Internet."

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter at AshMarshallMLB.