‘Fans and Brands Want to See the Real People’: How Athletes Handle Social Media

When I was an intern at Sports Illustrated, the magazine ran an op-ed by a professional basketball player on my hometown team. The story was beautifully written and made me wonder why I’d never seen a piece from this apparently multi-talented athlete before. Later that day, I ran into the story’s editor and asked about the revision process.

“Nothing against the writing, but what was published was pretty different from the first draft,” he told me. “We always have a heavy hand when it’s coming from a non-journalist.”

I learned a lesson that afternoon about how the world works. Athletes—who have dedicated their lives to their sport of choice, not writing—often rely on behind-the-scenes help when it comes to public communications. If you see your favorite athlete or celebrity’s byline on a surprisingly eloquent piece, well, there’s probably a reason why it’s so well-written.

Social media accounts are no different. Having an adviser on the dos and don’ts of Twitter or Facebook is essential, especially when any misstep can instantly go viral. (Yes, those are all separate links. And no, I didn’t forget about J.R. Smith.)

For Carlos Tovar, a 23-year-old who resides in Brooklyn, helping athletes shape their social media personas has become an unusual freelance gig. When he’s not working as a social strategist for ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, Tovar runs the social accounts for Brice Johnson of the Los Angeles Clippers and Joel James of the Kumamoto Volters (a team in Japan’s National Basketball League).

The three met freshman year at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and stayed close throughout college. (Tovar and James even lived together their senior year.) As the two hoop stars grew their social followings, Tovar began offering guidance after graduation on the intricate and often unsaid rules of social media.

“I’ve always enjoyed social media, and once they realized I’d be working in the field, it kind of clicked for them,” Tovar said. “They came to me and asked ‘Why don’t you help us with [our accounts]?'”

The first step was an education on those aforementioned dos and don’ts. Tovar wanted to make sure the players could recognize the material that could backfire and harm their careers. Unlike my Sports Illustrated example, both Johnson and James create their own content. Although Tovar gets final say on what is posted, the athletes are free to be themselves.

“In my perspective, fans and brands want to see the real people, so it’s not a good thing to always have these perfect little posts,” Tovar said. “I give them an understanding of what their fans want to see and tell them to go for it. If they ever post anything that will do more damage than good, I’ll explain to them why it’s wrong, and down it goes.”

Such was the case earlier this season when Johnson, out with a herniated disk, accidentally tweeted a promotional message while the Clippers were playing. The post, scheduled ahead of time to endorse Call of Duty, gave the appearance that Johnson was occupied with video games instead of following his team, which wasn’t the case. (The NBA also prohibits players from using social media during games.)

Given the injury, Tovar gave Johnson two options: immediately remove the tweet, or follow up with confirmation that he was watching from home while his back healed. Johnson chose the latter and managed to avoid any league scrutiny.

The position hasn’t always been easy for Tovar. Besides having to adapt to the time zones of his globe-trotting friends, James’ move to Japan presented its own set of cultural and communicative challenges.

“It’s been a ten trillion percent culture shock,” Tovar said. “It was a completely blind move for him.” James’ adventures in Japan have, however, made for some great posts. “Using social to showcase the encounters of a 7-foot-tall man walking around the streets of Kumamoto is hilarious for fans both here and there.”

In Johnson’s case, adjusting to life in the NBA has presented its own set of challenges. Hectic travel schedules and constant commitments make it tougher for Johnson to respond regularly, so Tovar occasionally has to figure out solutions himself. (Though he added that “text messages save the world.”)

“Instead of nagging, I keep up with the team social feeds to see what Brice is up to,” he said. “If there is a charity event, I’ll ask how it went and something fun that happened. [That helps] bring attention to things worth sharing that aren’t yet out there in the social world.”

Social media is an inherently personal medium, so handing the keys to someone else has the potential to get uncomfortable. But it’s certainly easier to enlist the help of a trusted friend as opposed to a distant third party.

“At the end of the day,” Tovar said, “it’s about helping some of my best friends make sure they are viewed in the public eye as the guys they really are.”

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