Sport and social media are like peas in a pod. Sporting clubs/leagues possess the perfect concoction for social media success - a passionate audience, celebrity status and highly valued content. Fans gravitate to sporting associations like glue, which is why the NBA & UFC are amongst the most successful social media marketers on the planet. But... with high profile comes high risk. Particularly when a angry fan gets involved. Which is precisely what has unfolded over recent months in Australia, where a single fan has inflicted perhaps the most sustained and damaging social media campaign ever seen against a professional organisation.
A big claim... I know. Plenty of brands have fallen victim to a social media crisis. Yet I can't recall a case with sustained mainstream media coverage for over 3 months. To get a sense of the scale of the social media scandal, it is first necessary to understand the context of the story.
The sport at the centre of the scandal is Australian Rules Football (AFL) " Australia's national sport. Aussie Rules football is to Australians what ice hockey is to Canadians. Or what the NFL is to Americans. It's huge!
The team tainted by the scandal is St Kilda, who have made the Grand Final (aka Super Bowl) the last two seasons running. Make no mistake, this is high profile stuff!
A Teenage Girl Scorned
The chain of events that have unfolded are both disturbing and bizarre:
- A female fan met a number of St Kilda players during a school clinic. She was just 16 years of age. Despite her youth, a sexual relationship began with Sam Gilbert, one of the players. Shortly after she alleged that she was pregnant with his twins (a claim she recently admitted was a lie, many months after the initial accusation).
- While the girl harboured ambitions of becoming a WAG, the player wasn't interested in maintaining the relationship and ended it. Shortly after the girl reported she had miscarried her alleged child.
- Jaded at her treatment (or "treatment", depending on which side, if any, you're on) by the player and his club, the girl reported the incident to the AFL. While the AFL investigated her claims, they were ultimately dismissed as no unlawful conduct had occurred.
By this point, the girl felt humiliated (despite the fact her deception had not yet been revealed). She decided it was time to settle the score via social media...
Revenge via Facebook
A n angry ports fan taking to social media to air their grievances is nothing out of the ordinary. Except when they've managed to acquire nude photos of two of the best players in the competition. Which is exactly what she had in her possession after her brief relationship with the player in question.
On December 21, she briefly released the photos to the Internet via Facebook, before a court order prompted Facebook to disable her account.
The photos were subsequently published to a friend's account, but it was also shut down within the hour.
With Facebook's swift action limiting the spread of the photos, she turned to Twitter.
Revenge via Twitter
Facebook's privacy controls were ultimately limiting the online spread of the photos. Which is where Twitter filled the void.
The public nature of Twitter meant the photos could instantly be accessed and viewed by anyone. Within minutes of the photos being published, they had gone viral. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Indeed, the photos became so popular that they spawned their own hashtag - #Dikileaks.
Nor was the girl finished there. She claimed to have up to 19 other nude images of players that she would subsequently leak via Twitter. While those photos never surfaced due to legal threats and police action, it did not stop the teenager amassing a Twitter following approaching 20,000.
Indeed, in the three months since leaking the photos, the fan has managed to maintain headlines with ongoing claims against the players and club via television appearances, radio interviews and publicity stunts.
Social media and a few nude photos had spawned a one-girl media empire.
Revenge via Video/YouTube
Aside from using Twitter and mainstream media, the disgruntled fan also turned to YouTube to reveal (or "reveal") her side of the story. A number of videos were produced shortly after the photos were published, racking up 50,000+ views.
However, it was via hidden video that the teenager delivered her final knockout blow.
In a crazy twist, the teen released a video with footage implying she maintained a cocaine fueled sexual relationship with Ricky Nixon, the nude player's manager, who happens to be the highest profile sports agent in Australia (Jerry Maguire-esque).
The video, while circumstantial, was damning enough to take the scandal to a new level. Three weeks after the story broke (and three months after the nude photo scandal), it still dominates Australia's national news headlines and has led to the resignation of the player agent. At that point the fan declared via Twitter that she had finally won...
Largest social media PR disaster ever...?
I'm prone to say yes, given that I have been exposed to this saga throughout the full three months. Not one party involved has emerged with their reputation in tact. Not the player, fan, club, or league. And certainly not the player manager!
I'm interested in an international perspective. Is this the most damaging social media crisis ever?!?
I'm an online marketing strategist currently working for one of Australia's largest online agencies. I consult with our clients to develop holistic web strategies, while also managing the SEO and social media elements of the business.