Hey, I Own That #Hashtag — and Please Use It

The United States Olympic Committee is telling leading advertisers that they may not use “#Rio2016” or “#TeamUSA” hashtags in their own social media communications or advertisements unless they themselves are an official USOC Summer Olympics 2016 or Team USA sponsor. But I have to ask — is there really a way to “own” a hashtag?

Rio 2016The United States Olympic Committee is telling leading advertisers that they may not use “#Rio2016” or “#TeamUSA” hashtags in their own social media communications or advertisements unless they themselves are an official USOC Summer Olympics 2016 or Team USA sponsor.

But I have to ask — is there really any way to “own” a hashtag?

Twitter protocol would have it that if you want to explore who’s using a hashtag, just search for the tag and take note of its usage by whom. Then, decide whether or not you want to join the conversation. As a manager of several social media accounts, for myself and my clients, I know that many advocates and detractors alike use a branded hashtag or handle to send a clear message, one way or another, to the hashtag-using community or account holder about a point of view they wish to share. As far as I know, there is no database of “owned” hashtags persons or brands may not use.

When it’s a “unique” hashtag I’ve created to use for a client or event, I may not always be happy about every comment posted using it – but I certainly take note of the points of view of those who use it, and I protect that right of free expression for all users, even detractors. If the comments are abusive, one can take steps to block content if the community doesn’t shut the user down first. PR-types have always embraced social media as listening posts first.

USOC clearly believes that there’s a difference between “free speech” (citizen users) and “commercial free speech” (brand users) and is staking its claim, some say like a bully. They may not like the idea that unaffiliated brands can jump on breaking news at a global event, as news sometimes does at such a spectacle (take the 2013 Super Bowl blackout, for example).

In theory, #TeamUSA or #Rio2016 may be designed as a walled-off branded club unique for USOC & Team USA sponsors, thus, other advertisers may use them at their own peril. In practice, these hashtags serve as an online, global and social media community — and while USOC has no plan to stop ordinary citizens from using these hashtags (and may even encourage them to do so), it’s clear that any business or advertiser, small or large, should avoid the headache of rooting for the national team in Rio.

That’s kind of sad — there are plenty of businesses that want to shout out their pride to the red, white and blue, and to Rio, too, without having to pay USOC for the right to do so. I guess for the rest of the advertising world, “#SomethingHappeninginSouthAmericaRightNow” and “#AthletesThatCallThemselvesAmericans” may have to do.