September 30, 2019

Antonio Brown Controversy Reveals the Power—and Ethical Gray Areas—of Social Media

by Ellen Mallernee Barnes in News

by Pattie Sullivan, senior vice president, Red Havas 

Like many of us, I’m immersed in media from the time I roll out of bed in the morning until I shut off the lights and call it a day. However, because I work in PR, I tend to see things through a dual lens. For instance, my teenagers talking about TikTok interests me as a mom who is concerned about online privacy and other issues. But as a communicator, this same conversation becomes a mini, non-scientific focus group about teens’ changing social media habits.

As a lifelong fan of football—and the Pittsburgh Steelers in particular—I’ve lately been fascinated personally and professionally by the drama unfolding around former Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown (aka AB, Mr. Big Chest). Of course, it’s hard for me to be objective, given the much-documented circumstances around his trade from the Steelers to the Los Angeles Raiders. Like many members of Steeler Nation, I was sorry to lose his talent, but just as happy to say buh-bye to the constant drama.

So, I watched closely (on Twitter) his arrival via hot air balloon to Raiders training camp this past July (even commenting about the irony of him taking such a method of transportation). Next, I watched, along with the rest of the sports world, as AB seemingly started to very publicly self-destruct not long after that hot air balloon landed. Practically every day there was news about his absence from training camp. He became (even more) vocal on Twitter, calling out Raider coaches and owners, posting a highly produced video that included private conversations with coach Jon Gruden, publicly posting the letter the team sent him detailing the fine for his absence, and then openly asking for his release. The Raiders, like the Steelers before them, were faced with an extremely talented player who did not appear to want to play for them. So, they did what they thought they needed to do and released him (which was soon followed by a staged video posted on Twitter of him celebrating his freedom from the Raiders).

Just hours later, AB’s very public bad behavior was rewarded … with a contract from the New England Patriots. And so, the conspiracy theories began. Were his outrageous antics—including his social media barrage—part of something more? Apparently so. It didn’t take long for the news to emerge that, to accelerate his release from the Raiders, AB had sought the advice of social media consultants. It all started to make sense. Then, the implications of this really started to settle in.

This is a perfect case study for demonstrating the immense power that social media wields—how one person can use it to manipulate public opinion to such an extent that he can manufacture the outcome he wants—in this case, a trade to a superior team with a lauded coach and quarterback.

Personally, I’m steamed, of course, that AB is going to a Steelers rival. But it’s also deeply troubling to me, professionally, that social media consultants appear to have been behind the scenes pulling the strings all along. Sure, no laws were broken, and no one was hurt (unless you consider the many Raiders fans who shelled out big bucks for their new AB jerseys, only to be seen burning them just days later). But I can’t help but feel that this has given my profession a black eye.

It’s no secret that the public relations profession has been criticized over the years (some of it deserved). We’re sometimes painted as little more than spin doctors, flacks who mislead the public so we can protect the interests of the organizations who pay us. Since moving over to PR from journalism a number of years ago, I’ve learned that 99 percent of the time, this just isn’t so. My colleagues and peers take pride in being ethical and communicating honestly. It is a commitment we take very seriously.

That is what disturbs me about the actions taken by the social media consultants who advised AB. Were the objectives achieved? Obviously, yes. But it sure wouldn’t be work I’d ever be proud of. Just the opposite, in fact, as this type of subterfuge invites skepticism and perpetuates the spin-doctor narrative. And we’re better than that.

Postscript: Since drafting this, Antonio Brown:

  • Was released from the Patriots after only 11 days, following accusations from two women;
  • Re-enrolled in Central Michigan University (his alma mater) presumably to complete his education;
  • Began a Twitter campaign to get back into football.

Will he find another NFL team willing to roll the dice on a very gifted athlete, albeit one with a lot of baggage? It’s unclear at the moment, but I know I’ll be watching this soap opera continue to unfold in my Twitter feed.