New Rules of the Game: Watch What You Tweet

From pro sports to business, employers crack down on Twitter over sharing.

August 31, 2009, 6:18 PM

Sept. 1, 2009— -- Twitter users are often accused of providing too much information, but increasingly such over sharing could land tweeters in trouble with their bosses and the law.

The United States Tennis Association is the latest organization to ban its members from sending short digital messages using Twitter, warning players that tweeting about themselves, their injury status even court conditions could violate the game's anti-gambling rules.

Players – their coaches, agents and family members – attending the just kicked-off U.S. Open in Queens, New York, were reminded of the rules by signs posted in the players' lounge and locker rooms that read: "Important. Player Notice. Twitter Warning."

The signs say tweeting is not allowed on court during matches, but also caution players and their entourages that sending "certain sensitive information concerning your match or other matches and/or players should be avoided. Depending on the information sent out this could be determined as the passing of 'inside information.'"

Professional tennis is not the only organization – nor even the only pro sports league – with stiff rules about employees' use of social networks and Twitter in particular. Many businesses and the U.S. military have social media policies in place to limit sensitive or proprietary information for being released.

Keeping inside information from getting out, whether in sports or in business, is nothing new, but the popularity of Twitter and its ability to easily broadcast information to large groups of people makes it a dangerous tool to organizations that are trying to protect proprietary information, said Eric B. Meyer, a Philadelphia-based employment lawyer who specializes in corporate social media policies.

"Social networking differs from the phone, e-mail and face-to-face contact because it's viral. Information can spread to a huge group of people incredibly quickly. Once that post is out there is no controlling what happens," said Meyer.

"Social networking is a balancing act for a company. A company can benefit from Twitter if employees use it in a productive manner. It's a good public relations tool. But there is flip side of the coin, where employees could potentially lambaste companies, criticize their employers or God forbid put out inside, confidential information. One of the biggest dangers is from trade secrets getting out into the public domain," he said.

The inside intelligence the tennis association wants to keep out of the public domain and particularly out of the hands of punters bent on illegal gambling is "information about the likely participation or likely performance of a player in an event or concerning the weather, court conditions, status, outcome or any other aspect of an event which is known by a covered person and is not information in the public domain."

Many of the American tennis' best known stars, including Serena Williams and Andy Roddick, have legions of fans following them on Twitter and regularly post messages on a variety of topics from their private lives to their injury status.

Roddick, who has more than 100,000 fans who follow his Twitter posts, came out – on Twitter of course – to oppose the ban. "[I think it's] lame the US Open is trying to regulate our tweeting.. I understand the on-court issue but not sure they can tell us if we can't do it on our own time ... we'll see," he wrote over the weekend.

"I definitely respect the rule about inside info and on the court, but you would seriously have to be a moron to send 'inside info' through a tweet," he added in another message.

Some NFL teams have taken a similarly tough stance on players, officials and even spectators from tweeting about team strategies disclosed in practices, player injuries and other inside information.

In a game where coaches cover their mouths during televised games so lip readers won't know the plays they're ordering, teams are taking extra precautions to muzzle the chattering classes.

The Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions all ban tweeting -- and other forms of reporting – by spectators at their practice fields.

Some teams, including the Dolphins, have urged their players not to tweet. Other teams are more lenient about the use of social media. All teams are weighing the impact of the new modes of communication, according to the Associated Press.

In August, the U.S. Marines banned the use of Twitter and other social networking sites when used on official networks because the "sites in general are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries."

Though the Marine's top brass often use Twitter and Facebook as a public relations tool, it is illegal to disclose – through any means – the military equivalent of inside information, things like secrets about troop movements, tactics and weapons specs.

Many companies too are negotiating the fine line between using social media to promote their products and keeping employees from leaking proprietary information.

"It is important for a company to have a clearly defined social media policy that defines for employees what they can and can't say," said Sharlyn Lauby, president of the human resources company ITM Group Inc.

An employees should take it upon himself to find out what his company's policy is and comply with it in order to avoid disciplinary or legal action, said Meyer.

"Find out on the first day of a new job what you can do and what's no-no," said Meyer.

"Companies take publishing proprietary or confidential information very seriously and so should any employee."

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