On November 5th, Chris Jones wrote a piece for ESPN The Magazine saying Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to cancel the New York Marathon after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the eastern seaboard was a mistake. He referred to himself as “a runner” and vocalized that runners don’t run for anyone but themselves, and that the marathon participants should have been forced to run along a modified course that took them through some of the city’s worst hurricane-ravaged areas to “turn the unconscious into the conscious.” It was an earnest but misguided piece that lent some credence to his claim that runners were “selfish” (or at least he was), that they’d only care about the devastation if they were forced to run through it, and that the hurricane already felt like “old news” and thus having the marathon would have kept the tragedy fresh in everyone’s minds.

Naturally, many were outraged by the piece. The article attracted almost 350 comments (and counting), as well as a passionate response from Deadspin. Readers were calling for Jones to get fired for being inhumane and insensitive. All in all, the article garnered a lot of attention, but unfortunately it was mostly negative. And here’s where the debate begins.

You can argue all day long that “any press is good press,” especially in this instance. I’m not saying this is what ESPN did, but a lot of brands do employ this tactic — act like a troll to make people angry and reap the rewards and attention. Yes, ESPN may be happy with the pageviews despite the fact that the reaction was largely negative. But as a brand you need to be aware of the distinction and understand the ramifications of being controversial for a few extra eyeballs.

One of ESPN’s writers, whether he’s a full-time staff member or a new freelance writer, wrote this piece on ESPN’s behalf. He is representing the brand regardless of whether he’s the editor-in-chief or some college kid who got paid fifty bucks to churn out an editorial. His piece got a lot of attention, but if this wasn’t ESPN’s strategy and they trusted Jones to prepare a piece about the canceled New York Marathon and this is what he came up with, that’s a whole ‘nother bag of worms. Was his post vetted beforehand by an editor or a higher up, or did ESPN just let him publish his own piece without any sort of quality control?

Whoever is writing for you, either on your site or through social media, needs to be able to reflect the values and voice of your brand as closely as possible. If you want to be silly, have someone be silly. If you want to be professional, appear professional. But you can’t have a discrepancy in the tone your writers and content creators convey and what you want to put out there as a company.

Maybe it was ESPN’s strategy to stir the pot a bit and cause a little controversy with this article. But let’s play devil’s advocate and assume they didn’t want this type of reaction. In that case, they failed on a few accounts. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s what I would recommend:

  1. Fully consider the context. Is the topic or subject matter sensitive, as was the case with the marathon in light of what was going on (Hurricane Sandy)? If so, a more thoughtful approach is recommended.
  2. Make sure the content goes through an editorial process. Have a couple sets of eyes on the piece to try and catch anything that could be misinterpreted. Check for overall tone. The writer is oftentimes too close to his own piece to be able to edit it effectively, so it’s an editor or higher up’s job to give a fresh perspective to see if a piece of content is appropriate or ready to send out.
  3. If there’s warranted backlash, have a plan for damage control. Offer up a response from the editor, apologize if you offended anyone, and take responsibility.

Obviously, the above pointers don’t matter if you wanted the controversy in the first place, but for more conservative brands or for those who are looking to be industry thought leaders, it’s better to tread more professionally. And it’s especially important that your staff understands the proper way to represent your brand. Your employees are all brand ambassadors whether or not you realize it. Some of them may be public-facing while others may not be, but at the end of they day they are each a spokesperson for you. Make sure that you’re all on the same page or else you could be faced with some unintentional backlash for someone else’s actions.

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