There was a time when baseball was called America’s pastime. Ah, those innocent bygone days of lazy Saturday afternoons in Mayberry …

The America we live in today is a little bit different. Our national pastime is probably video games, and our national sport is without question the grand obsession that is the National Football League. Football is America writ large: aggressive, competitive, passionate.

There was a time when baseball was called America’s pastime. Ah, those innocent bygone days of lazy Saturday afternoons in Mayberry …

The America we live in today is a little bit different. Our national pastime is probably video games, and our national sport is without question the grand obsession that is the National Football League. Football is America writ large: aggressive, competitive, passionate.

It is where merit is rewarded (see Tom Brady) and incompetence ruthlessly punished (see Washington Redskins). It is a game of really intricate, detailed and hard-to-understand rules.

Because football is America, and because America is undergoing a social revolution of sorts thanks to social media, we have an incredibly important lesson that comes to us from the annals of the NFL.

Larry Johnson, the star running back of the woeful Kansas City Chiefs, reportedly posted messages on Twitter in which he pumped up his father’s college football coaching credentials and playing experience while poking holes in the credentials of pro coaches, including his own coach (you can read an account by NBCSports.com here).

In the unusually macho and authoritarian society of the NFL locker room, this sort of rebellion against Todd Haley, the head coach of the Chiefs, may be tantamount to nailing The 95 Theses on the doors of Schlosskirche, even if spelling and punctuation aren’t strong points for Johnson, a graduate of Penn State University.

But the drama did not end there. Apparently, Johnson went on to engage in a Twitter argument that included epithets. (I did note with interest that Johnson used UberTwitter. Go BlackBerry!) The response has been, shall we say … puzzling.

NBCSports, via ProFootballTalk, opined about past writings on "the potential risks of Twitter for players. It’s inevitable that some players will forget it’s a public forum and write things that will get them in trouble."

Numerous others echoed this opinion, tut-tutting that these overpaid athletes don’t realize how dangerous Twitter is.

Well, I for one am glad that Johnson decided to reveal himself on Twitter. And I’d like to thank him for it.

Listening and engaging is not enough

As a fan of social media, I believe in authenticity and transparency. If we assume that Johnson was utterly authentic and transparent in his tweets, we can draw conclusions about the crass statements he made. Isn’t it better to know that about him than to be ignorant of such things? …CONTINUED

The problem here isn’t that Johnson apparently tweeted his thoughts; the problem is that he had those thoughts in the first place. This being America, he’s entitled to whatever thoughts and opinions he wants to have; and I sure am glad he chose to share them.

Now his employer, the league he plays for, his sponsors, and his fans can all act with information and knowledge.

In this context, let me quote this fantastic post from Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media, entitled, fittingly enough, "Twitter Won’t Make You Suck Less. Ask Comcast": "There are A LOT of businesses trying to elbow their way into social media right now. We get people contacting us every day asking for social media and ORM strategies to help put out the fires that ignite around them.

"They think that creating a Twitter account or being active on Facebook will help them ‘listen’ and ‘engage.’ And it will. But listening alone won’t do anything to fix the core issue. And the issue is often that their product simply sucks. That’s what they need to fix."

The prevailing opinion within sports and social media circles appears to be that Johnson made a mistake by forgetting that Twitter is a public medium. That misses the point completely. The tweeting allowed him to engage, and the firestorm of negative publicity will enable him to "listen."

What needs to be fixed is not the fact that he appeared authentic and careless on Twitter; what needs to be fixed is his apparent attitude and philosophical views.

Unfortunately, the NFL, various celebrities, and legal departments around the world will draw the opposite conclusion. Look for draconian "social media codes" to be coming down the line using Johnson’s little outburst as an example of what not to do.

Employee handbooks around the country are being revised as I write this to let people know that if they use Twitter as Johnson did, they, too, will be sanctioned and penalized and so on.

The clear lesson from l’affaire de Johnson for most people will be, "Be obnoxiously vile, but stay the hell away from Twitter."

Let me suggest that the opposite lesson is in order, especially for businesses, and especially for Realtors whose principal stock in trade is "trust."

Suspicious minds

The deck is stacked against the real estate agent when it comes to earning trust. Most Americans hold the profession in extremely low regard. The media portrayal of real estate agents is not exactly positive. …CONTINUED

There are structural conflicts of interest built into the compensation model, especially for buyer agents. Various laws and regulations prevent real estate agents from speaking their mind for fear of lawsuits, losing their license, and bad publicity.

It’s so bad that if I ask a real estate agent, a supposed local expert, point blank what the top five schools in the area are, she can’t answer me but will refer me to various Web sites.

The fact that so many Realtors do earn the trust of their clients, day in and day out, is a testament to their ability, their honesty and their probity. When the best of these Realtors get onto social media, they make sure to be authentic and honest — as much as possible.

Sometimes, that will result in controversy — even bad publicity. If the goal is to improve the product, if the goal is to provide the highest level of service with strict ethical standards, controversy shouldn’t be avoided — but rather confronted head on.

If you are right, then stand by your convictions; if you are wrong, then apologize, listen, engage, and fix the core problem. Did you tweet out that a particular area has a flooding problem, and you turned out to be wrong?

Isn’t it better to fix the core problem — of your lack of knowledge — rather than "fixing" the twitter problem? Let your network know what you got wrong, putting out a correction (or an apology), and let everyone know what you’re doing about it.

If you’re a broker and one of your agents puts something horrible on Facebook, shouldn’t you be more concerned that such an agent is working in your company rather than worrying about some passing embarrassment from that publication? Fix the core problem.

I submit that it would be better to be real and get people pissed at you from time to time — as long as you listen, engage, and fix what should be fixed — than to utilize social media as a series of carefully worded press releases.

We can tell when you’re sanitizing and spinning. As I’m sure we’ll be able to tell whether Johnson’s future tweets are looked over by his agent, his publicist and a legal committee. That way lies oblivion and irrelevance.

As for the NFL … I rather think the league should encourage all of its players and coaches to tweet much, much more, with total freedom. The problem isn’t what they tweet. The problem might be what they’re thinking.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.

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