The Houston Rockets fired their social media manager – why?


It was one tweet to the unemployment line for the Houston Rocket’s social media manager. There’s plenty to learn here – I’ve got a take on the firing that may surprise you

suit-got-firedOne of the perils of the social media age is the simmering desperation to get noticed, to stand out from freeze-dried corporate messaging. So we look to get “edgy.” Edgy cuts both ways, as the recently fired social media manager of the Houston Rockets just found out.

One tweet to the unemployment line

After his firing, Chad Shanks, “digital communication manager,” did his own post-mortem interview. All the hubbub stems from one controversial tweet, posting during the waning minute of the final playoff game between the Rockets and the Mavericks (the Rockets clinched the series and advanced). Now deleted, the tweet was an emoji nightmare:


The Rockets’ vanquished opponent handled the fiasco (and subsequent apology) in a savvy/direct manner:

Shanks was taken by surprise by the fracas, mostly because his manager had given him a “long leash” to push the envelope on the Rockets’ Twitter account. But almost immediately after he tweeted this one, he got a text message – the kind none of us ever want to get:

My supervisor texted me pretty quickly. He’s normally very supportive of me taking the account to subversive places and doing everything I could to give the fans engaging content, but he wasn’t so supportive on this one, so I knew something was up.

Within a day, Shanks was out of job and doubtless polishing up his LinkedIn profile. Putting aside his employer’s decision, what did Shanks learn? He offered this advice to other social media managers:

Know your audience, then balance your personality, knowledge and experience with the expectations of the people who sign your check.

Basic advice, not wrong, but it doesn’t get to the heart of it. Shanks was only considering what offended him. Ha admits as much, conceding that:

I made the mistake of only considering how I’d interpret a Tweet instead of the millions of diverse people who eventually saw it.

Turning this social media fiasco into lessons learned

I’d give a radically different list of advice for “digital communications managers”:

  • Decide where you stand on being “edgy.” Consider backing away from sensational attention seeking in favor of confidence that your brand doesn’t need desperate tactics to get noticed (in the Rockets’ case, by winning the series, they are guaranteed plenty of free national brand exposure – “edgy” content and envelope-pushing tweets weren’t needed).
  • Avoid viral content in favor of pursuing topic and brand authority, with the goal for effecting people’s lives with content that helps them, educates them and inspires them. And yes, in some cases, challenges them.
  • Be aware that diverse audiences are likely to be offended by just about any opinion. Let your social media managers know you will support them and not leave them hanging out to dry just because some folks get upset. Don’t let “faux outrage” fans turn your account into elevator messaging. Allow personality to come out, but within a well-thought context that includes just enough checks and balances.
  • Don’t allow social messaging to be approved by a large committee who end up sanitizing and neutering each message. Put the trust in one person and one manager. However: make sure that person is expected to run “judgement call” content by the manager (perhaps the biggest mistake Shanks made).

My take

We should deliver content that appeals to our audience, but allowing the faux outrage culture to dictate our entire approach is a mistake. I don’t believe that Shanks should have been fired for that tweet. He had been given a “long leash” and encouraged to be edgy. Long leashes spell dog bites, so blame the leash, not the dog.

Yes, that was probably an error in judgement on Shanks’ part. But his manager is the one who should look in the mirror for empowering an employee to tweet without an editorial review process. “Be edgy, but don’t offend anyone” is a useless job description. Shanks didn’t fail the Rockets as much as the Rockets’ social media process failed Shanks.

On social, the mob rules. ESPN refused to fire their reporter Britt McHenry, who got herself in a heap of (deserved) trouble, and that’s the right call. Let the mob move on, then take action. In an enterprise context, we get in trouble not for offering opinions (we actually need MORE of that), but by failing to support free expression with media guidelines that make sense.

Then we need a corporate mission for improving the state of the world that employees had a hand in creating – one that informs their social behavior and sparks the right kind of passion. Then we won’t have to tinkle in the punch bowl to get attention.

Image credit: frustrated business man on street fired © Focus Pocus LTD