Communicating Social Media Restrictions: Lessons from the London Olympic Volunteer Ban

When the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, LOCOG, announced a social media ban for volunteers the reaction was mostly negative with just a few thinking their position was reasonable.

At the time I wrote my initial comments in Olympic Ban Highlights Polarized Attitude to Social Media where I argued that while there are sensible reasons to restrict social media use, the way it was handled could have been improved. Most people I talked to agreed in principle with my point, but asked exactly how it could have been handled better. Maybe it is too late for LOCOG but may other organizations are in a similar position and there are valuable communication lessons we can learn from how this case has been handled.

First of all, I believe that LOCOG has two separate issues: the substance of the ban and the way it is communicated -- at least based on published reports like this article from the BBC. If this article is correct then the rules appear to be too restrictive, partly because of the addition of rules about things like talks to schools which clearly do not have the same impact as a live tweet at the wrong moment.

But let's assume for now that the management has defined the rules and made it clear that the decision is final. How, then, can they be communicated better? There are, essentially, three problems with the way it was done in London:

1. LACK OF EMPATHY.  In all communication some empathy for other people is the secret sauce that often makes the difference between success and failure. Before you deploy restrictions it is important to try to understand how the other people feel. Maybe you don't use social media yourself but saying things like "I never had social media when I was young and it was never a problem" do not help. If you really can't "get" social media try reframing it in terms of something you liked -- a Walkman, watching TV or whatever. At least try to present the rules in a way that recognizes that this might be an issue and avoid minimizing it.

2. FOCUS ON NEGATIVE.  Another problem with this and other restrictions is the focus on the negative. Instead of presenting a long list of things that are banned it would be better to start with positive statements recognizing the value of volunteer engagement, encouraging them to participate in the social conversation in a positive way.

3. UNSTRUCTURED INFORMATION.  But probably the worst communication fail of all is the use of an unstructured list of things that are forbidden, Ten Commandments style.  This technique is ineffective for several reasons. First of all it fails because by listing too many things it actually loses force. Zachary Tormala at Stanford has done some fascinating experiments on persuasion which show that adding to many arguments actually weakens your point. In the same way adding more and more things to the banned list just makes each individual item appear much less important.  It also fails because people simply don't remember the long list -- just that the list is way too long -- so people can innocently break a rule just because it wasn't memorable. Finally, it also fails because there is no rationale, so there is no buy in from the people who are supposed to follow the rules.

This last point is the most critical. How you structure the information depends on your case. I am not going to work through all the details of how you might do this but here is a rough outline of an approach for a case like the London Olympics:

First of all you could start by recognizing the importance of social media and the positive role volunteers can play in engaging with their communities, amplifying the messages of the organization. Then you can explain the necessary restrictions but structured in some way to make it easier to remember, to absorb and to accept.

In this case, for example, you could suggest that social media use is OK except in cases where it conflicts with the needs of Privacy (no cameraphones in the showers), Security (if you are next to a target don't tweet that in real time, only hours later) and Diligence (you don't do anything that stops you doing your work effectively, saving your tweets for breaks, after hours).  Finally you can provide a list of answers to specific "can I" questions, but in the form of an app, not a 28-page PDF written in legal language.

This approach might not be 100% watertight but no solution is. Whatever the rules people are going to use social media anyway, so it is better to guide it than to drive it underground. But at least reducing all the rules to three key words can make a difference in avoiding mistakes made because of a failure to understand the rules or why they exist.


Related posts on Social Media:

Olympic Ban Highlights Polarized Attitudes to Social Media

For more detailed advice, lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on persuasion, influencing, social media and other communication topics visit You can also contact me by email at or phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81.


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