The Los Angeles Kings’ Director of Digital Media, Pat Donahue, Explains Why Pushing the Boundaries Has Been a Successful Social Media Strategy for the Two-Time Stanley Cup Champs and How He Handles the Inevitable “Trolls”.
When Pat Donahue joined the Los Angeles Kings organization in 2011, social media was an afterthought for most brands – as he puts it, “something a PR person did on the side”. At the time, Donahue, whose responsibilities as Director of Digital Media for the Kings include managing the team’s website, social media, analytics, mobile and digital marketing, didn’t know that social media would fast become the preferred communications medium and news source for a generation. Nor could he have known that the Los Angeles Kings would win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history that season, and that he would find himself at the helm of one of the most well regarded social media programs in professional sports. Though running the Kings’ Twitter is just one of Donahue’s many tasks, it’s the Twitter account that has garnered the most recognition, giving the club a reputation for being innovative, edgy and clever, and setting the standard for so many other organizations and brands not only in sports, but across a variety of industries.
I sat down with Donahue (virtually) to discuss how he has helped the Kings find success on the social media front, how the Twitter account walks the delicate line between clever and callous, and why organizations need to have complete trust in their social media leads.
Pink Puck: Social media and digital marketing jobs for sports teams/organizations are relatively new career opportunities. Did you happen into your job with the Kings or were you intent from the get-go on a job in sports marketing/social media?
Donahue: I joined in 2011, when social media was something that a PR person did on the side. The Kings’ accounts were RSS feeds for the most part, and platforms like Instagram, Vine and Snapchat didn’t even exist. I knew that I wanted to work on design, digital marketing and technology, and then social media blew up. That’s a small aspect of what I do, but it’s certainly the most popular.
Pink Puck: Much has been written about the LA Kings’ Twitter account, starting with the famous Vancouver tweet after the Kings beat the Canucks in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the time, did you think that what you were doing was innovative or ground-breaking?
Donahue: Yes, in the sense that, at the time, team Twitter accounts were so boring: just box scores and ticket sales, which some teams still use as their strategy. But that was also a perfect storm: beating the Canucks on the road after their history the past season and the Canadian media picking up on it. Up to that point, “tweets” weren’t reported on by the mainstream media, so this was new.
Pink Puck: Since that time, many organizations seem to be adopting more of a personality for their brands on social media and increasingly, trying to be more provocative and edgy. How do you continue to differentiate the Kings’ brand personality in the face of more imitators?
Donahue: It’s nice that we were first. When other teams do it, we always get a “this isn’t as funny as the Kings” which is always cool to see. But we have a specific voice; that is me writing, and other people might be funnier or better than me, but it’ll always be different. Our account is very personal.
Pink Puck: The recent firing of the Houston Rockets’ social media manager over a controversial tweet has demonstrated both the power of the medium and the potential downside of being risky with your brand on social media. Do incidents like this give you pause when you’re tweeting? How do you remain edgy without crossing the line into inappropriate?
Donahue: Our account has done much worse than the Rockets, I think, but our organization has bought into this strategy. If you want to push the edge, you have to be ready for mistakes. No one was harmed or offended, and it eventually goes away.
Pink Puck: One of the issues people raised about the Rockets’ incident was that social media is inherently fast-moving and requires quick thinking and immediate responses. How do you build in checks and balances when, unlike a traditional press release or a video, for example, your tweets are not being reviewed and pre-approved?
Donahue: You don’t. You hire someone who you trust to make those judgments on the fly, and if they make a mistake (within reason), that’s all part of the strategy. The best stuff we do, it happens on the fly. It’s relevant and timely.
Pink Puck: How do you encourage fans to not only interact with the social media accounts, but to promote and amplify the messages that the organization wants to get out there?
Donahue: We’re lucky that we have an incredibly passionate and dedicated fan base online. They are part of the team: the Insiders, LGK (Let’s Go Kings) online community, Die Hards and Boosters – they support our organization. It’s rare that I say “hey, go post this” because they always want to on their own.
Pink Puck: You must get hundreds of responses to a single tweet. How do you weed through them all to find those that are “worthy” of a response?
Donahue: Anyone who puts an original thought into their tweet, I’ll respond. Obviously, tweets that just say “cool” or “you suck” are not worth my time; I’ll give them a favorite. But if people are taking the time to talk to us, I’ll talk back to them.
Pink Puck: It must take tremendous patience to deal with the “trolls” that every organization, particularly sports teams, encounter on a regular basis. What have you found to be the biggest challenge in dealing with this negativity and how do you decide whether or not to respond?
Donahue: Just my general psyche: I don’t take anything personally, but it sucks reading negativity all day. These people have no accountability and they can say whatever they want – often the most vile things you can say to someone. Someone makes a dumb comment, and the Internet threatens to kill them, “dox” them and their family – it’s disgusting. It’s a huge reason why Twitter growth is where it is. If Kings fans have an issue with the team, our accounts, our marketing, the organization, let us know. But if it’s a 14-year old kid from Chicago, I don’t care. I’ll respond to them if I know I can come up with a good joke and take them down. I’ve often called someone out, then fans see it and jump in, and the original person has often apologized. If people aren’t accountable online, it’s chaos.
Pink Puck: Do you encourage the players, coaches and others in the organization to be active on social media or does that present more challenge than reward for the brand’s accounts?
Donahue: No, they aren’t interested. They play hockey. If someone came to us and wanted help or something, we’d love it. But they do what they do, and they let us do what we do. The risk for them is too high. One wrong word out of context and the tweet is on ESPN and the player has to apologize. It’s not worth it.
Pink Puck: How did you determine your social media strategy during these past few months, given the Kings aren’t in the playoffs? How do you continue to engage and keep folks interested?
Donahue: Luckily, the Reign (Ontario Reign ECHL team) and Monarchs (Manchester Monarchs AHL team) keep winning. That helps a lot with content to post everyday. The Worlds (IIHF World Hockey Championships) were good, too.
This is my first time with the Kings not making the playoffs. Usually, we win the Cup, and I have cup content every day till training camp! This year is very different. Luckily we have Rosen (Jon Rosen, LA Kings Insider), Alex (Alex Kinkopf, Kings’ Digital Media Coordinator), Bailey (the Kings’ mascot), and the Ice Crew all contributing and writing, out in the community, talking about the current playoffs, getting ready for next season. You find interesting stuff, and also realize that people are on vacation, out and about. They take a break from hockey, too.
Pink Puck: Finally, can you share a particularly great social media moment you’ve experienced with the Kings’ organization? A time when you realized, “Hey! This is working and I’m doing a pretty good job!”?
Donahue: For some reason, I was included in the list of “Top 50 Most Powerful in LA Sports.” It shows how powerful our reach is.