How footballers are trying to find their true voice on social media

How footballers are trying to find their true voice on social media
Players are often accused of portraying an inauthentic version of themselves online. Miguel Delaney speaks to Roc Nation’s social and digital director, Sam Bailey, about why that’s far from the case

As a perception grows that professional footballers just idly leave their social media to one of “a team”, Sam Bailey has actually found the opposite is true. He is director of social and digital at Roc Nation and has encountered the following requests: spell-checking tweets; players wanting to grow their following due to dressing-room banter about it; players asking how they get on TikTok, right up to those pushing environmental causes. Some have even told Bailey they need him to monitor comments to them after bad results because they just can’t face up to it.

And as for those contentious apology tweets?

“You’d be surprised how many players do that themselves,” Bailey explains. “Lines like ‘we’ll do better next time’ or ‘good to get three points’, very often that does come from the players because that’s probably the only thing they feel comfortable enough to say. It shows it’s hard for them.

“Some players feel they have to speak rather than go silent, whereas others go the opposite way. I’ve worked for football clubs prior to joining [Roc Nation] and I think I’ve got a good feeling that, after a game when you’ve got spanked 3-0, it’s not a good time to post probably for the next 24-48 – even 72 – hours. Some players, I won’t message them because it could be an accident waiting to happen, since they live and breathe this.

“Other players you know straight away are on the front foot. They want to rise up. Everyone is different so it’s about knowing the client well enough.”

In other words, as has become a core point in the last few weeks, to be authentic.

It is by now obvious that social media has transformed the profile of players. It allows them a more direct route to supporters in everything they do, but that has led to an unintended consequence where it can feel they are even more indirect due to a perception of curated images of players being put up online. The phrase “tweet something like…” has at this point become a social media meme in itself.

Either way, the area is crucial to a player’s appearance, as well as his public relations. It’s now how players present themselves to the world off the pitch and is central to how the game is consumed.

It is for all those reasons that Bailey believes social media isn’t to be taken lightly – and is far more important than just writing out captions. Having previously worked for Derby County and Reading, he now works with Roc Nation’s clients on their social media, among them Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne.

“If you make one mistake, it’s global news,” Bailey explains. “I think about that a lot when I look at the accounts I manage and have access to.

“I think my job is identifying what the client wants to do, or what they want to achieve if they do have a social cause, and then working backwards from there to strategically support their desired outcome. So there’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s really diverse and bespoke because it has to be.

“They of course have all the apps on their phone but, with me, regardless of whether someone says ‘you post for me’, we have Whatsapp groups with all of our players. I’ll always make sure, whenever a post is going out, if it’s a social cause or a commercial deal, that they’re 100 per cent happy with the text. I always wait for that OK. There’s always that level, that buffer to avoid the more highlighted mistakes that have been made.

<p>Sam Bailey with one of his Roc Nation clients, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne</p>

Sam Bailey with one of his Roc Nation clients, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne

“Some players are very ‘I know social media, I know my style, I just want some support as and when’, others are 50-50 and it’s just with commercial posting. I’ll sort of lean in and make sure it’s in line with their tone.

“One of my pet peeves is when it comes to commercial posts or branded posts. Because, statistically speaking, I think branded posts perform at least 50 per cent worse than a typical post from an engagement perspective. It could be the best content in the world, but if it’s got paid partnership next to it, it’s not going to perform as well. I find myself arguing with some brands about suggested copy when it just doesn’t fit with what our client would say.”

Having access to player accounts also gives Bailey a unique insight into the responses they receive. That can sometimes be joyous, especially when they do something brilliant on a pitch or off it. It can also, as more negative stories have shown, be thoroughly depressing. Bailey has seen firsthand the amount of racist abuse some players get, and how it can cascade in.

“There’s nothing worse. It’s disgusting. In the job, you sort of live and breathe everything with the players. I have notifications on for all of them, so I see all the comments they get. It’s disgusting. Nine times out of 10, I do take a step back and say ‘I’m glad it’s not me’ because I couldn’t deal with this.

“Not only that, but the players themselves have to report that. It’s not just they have to see it. It’s a growing frustration within the industry. There was a phase around Euro 2020 when there were stories about racial abuse every week. I would say the social media companies have a moral obligation to work on this.

“It’s crazy. I’m fascinated by all of the psychology around how people behave online, and how they are totally different when you put a screen in front of them. A lot of our clients have notifications off, and I don’t blame them in the slightest.

“Instagram has introduced new tools, where comments with certain emojis are hidden, and my job is to make the players aware of these updates. But it’s tough. I’ve had quite a few times where players do read comments, and they basically have to turn it off. It is of course their mental health that should be prioritised, but sometimes it is better to not go silent because players have an opportunity when people are listening. They can say things that people look up to.

“Again, the most important thing is that communication, and advice. That’s why players work with people on their social media.”

It’s not all about apologies. For those who treat the concept properly, it is about helping players find their true voice.

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