ESPN Creates Endorsement Guidelines After Conflict of Interest Questions

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Screenshot detail from Kelly McBride's Twitter account page. McBride is one member of the Poynter committee hired to replace ESPN's traditional Ombudsman. There is no disclosure on her Twitter page that states she serves on the ESPN committee. Her bio only says "Bio Senior Faculty - Poynter Institute.

ESPN’s executive vice president for production, Norby Williamson issued a statement this week to address ESPN staff’s endorsement guidelines.

As iMediaEthics has reported, ESPN’s editorial policies have been questioned this year because several of its presenters and announcers had endorsement deals — some undisclosed even to ESPN.

Erin Andrews announced in January that she would be endorsing Reebok products, just two weeks after commenting negatively about Nike products on air.  In February, the New York Times  reported that ESPN personalities Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso had undisclosed endorsement deals with Nike.   At the time, ESPN stated that it deals with endorsement contracts on a “case by case basis.”

Williamson stated that ESPN’s updated guidelines seek to “protect the integrity” of ESPN. Next week, ESPN is scheduled to “publicly list any relevant, approved endorsements involving ESPN commentators” on its website.

The guidelines (see here) require “all talent” to get the OK from ESPN before agreeing to endorse anyone.

Some restrictions include that ESPN “talent” can’t wear ESPN’s brand materials like logos during the endorsing and “talent” is barred from being involved in “an entity, product or event that is competitive with any of ESPN’s or The Walt Disney Company’s lines of businesses.” (ESPN is owned by Walt Disney Co.)

While not banned, ESPN indicated it likely wouldn’t give the OK for “talent” to endorse any clothing, footwear or equipment that might be used in any sport that ESPN “may cover.”  There may be some exceptions, however, for “players, coaches and administrators who are engaged as analysts and for whom such endorsements are part of the sports coverage/reporting landscape.”

The Orlando Sentinel reported that under the new guidelines, Andrews will have to end her endorsement deal with Reebok’s Zig Tech shoe on Jan. 1, 2012.  According to the Oregonian, the new guidelines only affect “less than 10 of the network’s on-air personalities” and Herbstreit and Corso’s arrangements will be permitted.

“Our goal is to eliminate any perception of conflict of interest,” Williamson is quoted as saying. “I feel very good that our work in the past has not been compromised. But I understand the potential perceptions of conflict.”

While ESPN has had an ombudsman position for several years, its past ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer rarely wrote columns about the media outlet’s ethical issues in the last six months of his term.  He was criticized, for example, for his response to the LeBron James “Decision” program ESPN aired, a program for which ESPN got a lot of heat.

In lieu of replacing Ohlmeyer, who wrote his last ESPN ombudsman column in January, ESPN hired the Poynter Institute to serve as the “Poynter Review Project.”  As StinkyJournalism has reported, the Poynter Review Project, which will include three Poynter faculty members, will serve in an ombudsman-like position for ESPN and comment at least monthly on issues at ESPN.

But, in the February announcements about the project, neither Poynter or ESPN discloses that ESPN is paying Poynter to work for ESPN. StinkyJournalism learned of the financial arrangement after asking Poynter president Karen Dunlap if any money deal existed.  She confirmed Poynter would be paid and said the first column is “A good place for them to disclose that Poynter will be paid.”

In that first column, Poynter didn’t disclose the payment and Poynter’s Dunlap hasn’t responded to our e-mail inquiries asking for explanation.  In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Dunlap commented that they aren’t trying to “be ombudsman” because “ombudsmen typically exchange with the audience.”   Kelly McBride, one of the Poynter Review Project members, added that the project won’t serve as “the complaint department.”

iMediaEthics wonders how the project isn’t a public relations move, given that ESPN has hired a well-known ethics institute to write about ESPN, but not deal with reader complaints.

McBride tweeted April 13 about the endorsement policies to say that the project intends to write about the new ESPN endorsment guidelines. McBride is one member of the Poynter committee hired to replace ESPN’s traditional ombudsman. Poynter is paid for this contract as iMediaEthics reported.

There is no disclosure on her Twitter page that states she serves on the ESPN committee or that Poynter or she is paid for her to do so. McBride’s Twitter page bio only says “Bio Senior Faculty – Poynter Institute.”

UPDATE: 4/16/2011 2:38 PM EST: iMediaEthics has written to Kelly McBride and Regina McCombs to ask why they don’t disclose on their Twitters their relationship to ESPN.  We will update with any response.

UPDATE: 4/20/2011 11:09 AM EST: Regina McCombs responded to iMediaEthics’ e-mail inquiry.

McCombs wrote: “I don’t plan to tweet about ESPN. My Twitter feed highlights interesting work and research in multimedia, mobile and video.

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ESPN Creates Endorsement Guidelines After Conflict of Interest Questions

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