Athletes catch fire, or get burned, on social media

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (center) visited a social media marketing class taught by David Gerzof Richard (front kneeling) at Emerson College in Boston this fall.

When an athlete’s profile rises, so does the potential for social media miscues -- which can range from minor slip ups like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tweeting that Baltimore Ravens supporters are the “worst fan base,” to major PR problems, like homophobic tweets by NHL player Tyler Seguin earlier this year.

Even mascots mess up. In the NFL, Atlanta’s FreddieFalcon, recently apologized for a tweet about suicide and the team’s disappointing season.

But one rising NFL star is turning his social media habit into a business platform for his personal brand.

A group of social media marketing students at Emerson College was recently issued a challenge: Tweet at celebrities to get them to visit. They chose New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and tweeted invites at him with the hashtag #Edelman2Emerson. And one night in late October, the man also known as @Edelman11 showed up.

The wide receiver told the class social media is a great way to interact with fans, but players need to think before they tweet.

“You gotta be careful with social media," said Edelman, "especially as an athlete. A person that’s under the microscope.”

Edelman’s fifth NFL season has been a breakout year. But long before he became Tom Brady’s top target, the 27-year-old started tweeting for fun.

“The adage is true. The harder you work, the luckier you get," says David Gerzhof Richard, a marketing professor at Emerson. He says Edelman’s growing social media stats -- more than 130,000 Twitter followers and 90,000 Facebook likes -- mirror his on-field performance.

“He was working on his social media platform before he found himself in the limelight and so, I think he was very well-positioned to take advantage of that situation," he says.

That’s why Edelman hired the agency Superdigital.

Superdigital’s creative director Assaf Swissa says, “The second you start doing traditional endorsement stuff, that’s when everyone’s going to get turned off.”

He says, don't expect to see offers like coupons and promo codes from Edelman: “Twenty percent off and you know, five dollars off and that kind of thing. That’s a bummer. That’s not really what anybody wants to see.”

Swissa says Edelman is personally involved in every post, so his personality shines through. That authentic style just helped him land an endorsement deal with Puma. But Superdigital’s head of strategy Alan Ringvald says authenticity on social media is risky.

“These are just people. And sometimes they have opinions. And sometimes those opinions aren’t popular.”

Social media strategy is all well and good, but Edelman himself says when it comes to picking up a lot of followers, nothing compares to scoring a touchdown.

About the author

Doug Tribou is a reporter for the Only A Game sports program produced at WBUR in Boston.

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