What do the Marine Corps and ESPN have in common — besides a fascination with men in uniform? A fear of Twitter.

On Monday the Marines announced a ban on social networking for soldiers that included usage of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites. They argued that social networking sites have the potential to endanger soldiers. Ok. Maybe.

But then ESPN followed suit, with a decree yesterday that employees were essentially banned from all sports mentions on social media.

The sports network has since relaxed its restrictions slightly, but for a company trying to increase its audience numbers, ESPN should be doing the reverse: telling its employees and on air talent to tweet early and often.

Yesterday when a memo on the matter went out to employees, the rest of the world soon knew about it. Ric Bucher, a
sportscaster who covers the NBA for ESPN and ESPN.com, has more than
18,000 followers and was not pleased about the decision:

“The hammer just came down, tweeps: ESPN memo prohibiting tweeting info
unless it serves ESPN. Kinda figured this was coming. Not sure what
this means but I…I’m probably violating some sort of policy just by
telling you. In any case, stay tuned”

In fact, he was. The memo stated that on social media: “The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts.” While Boucher leaking the news to the greater world may not have helped matters, the actual memo did more damage. The most surprising ultimatum was that ESPN did not want employees publishing any sports related content on their personal websites and feeds. While allowing employees to write about their personal lives is in keeping with how many people use these services, it is limiting the most useful purpose for a television network: engagement with the brand.

The company went on to write that their media team is “currently building and testing modules designed
to publish Twitter and Facebook entries simultaneously on ESPN.com,
SportsCenter.com, Page 2, ESPN Profile pages and other similar pages
across our web site and mobile platforms. The plan is to fully deploy
these modules this fall.”

Social networking tools are tricky for many corporations because they leave open the possibility of misshaps and problems from individuals who abuse them. But part of their skill comes from that personal level of involvement. Trying to systematize and categorize social networking also limits its benefits. 

Meanwhile, for a television network, the upside of having empoyees on social media — for breaking news, creating engaging personas and generally growing audience numbers — is high.

The network has since revised its restrictions in a new memo that does not prevent employees from referencing any sport related events away from officially sanctioned efforts. It lists:

“If you are an ESPN talent, reporter, writer, producer, editor or other
editorial decision maker or a public-facing ESPN employee, you are
reminded that when you participate in public blogs or discussion
activities, you are representing ESPN just as you would in any other
public forum or medium, and you should exercise discretion,
thoughtfulness and respect for your colleagues, business associates and
our fans. All posted content is subject to review in accordance with,
ESPN’s employee policies and editorial guidelines.”

ESPN’s new guidelines have been in the works for awhile, but the company is still feeling them out as they go.

Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesman, told The New York Times: “We’ve been in the social networking space for a long time, and will
continue to be there. But we want to be smarter about how we do it.”

This particular instance will not go down as a way to be smart about social networking. One gauge of that? “ESPN Tells Employees” became a trending topic on Twitter yesterday.