The revelation that tennis player Maria Sharapova failed a drug test at the Australian Open has thrown the spotlight on more than just the issue of doping in sport. when it comes to
PR practitioners and brands who commit money to sports sponsorship around the world will have been watching closely – possibly from behind the sofa – as the situation unfolded. And there are two separate issues in play when it comes to reputational management in this case.
The first is that of Sharapova herself, who elected to adopt tactics often referred to as ‘getting out in front of the story’ by making the announcement herself.
When you have bad news which will inevitably become public, this is often considered to be the strongest approach – especially if you have a ready-made reason for why that bad news has happened.
In the case of Sharapova, calling a press conference and making the announcement about the failed test allowed her to control the way the story was released. The fact that the entirety of the world’s media got the story at the same time can also help reduce the ‘legs’ of a story – the situation where one platform publishes an exclusive, the rest of the journalism world rushes to catch up and the subject of the story finds themselves fielding constant and continuing inquiries from different branches of the media. When this is what happens, the subject has no control of the speed or direction of the story.
By making the announcement on her own terms, Sharapova was also able to exert a little control over the tone and heat of the conversation. Of course, bad news is still bad news, but by issuing a calm admission of guilt coupled with a full apology and acceptance of her mistake, the headlines were far more sympathetic than could otherwise have been the case.
‘Sharapova apologises for failed drugs test’ reads far more positively as the first-day headline than ‘Sharapova exposed as drugs cheat,’ so full marks to those in her team responsible for PR (if not for those responsible for her medical declarations…).
Interestingly, their approach had an impact on the second area of PR interest around the story – the response of brands which have paid millions to make Sharapova the world’s highest-earning sportswoman.
Rather than issuing swift, brutal, all-ties-cut statements, both Porsche and Nike instead said they were ‘suspending’ their partnerships with the tennis player. This is a further indication of the success of Sharapova’s PR offensive – the reaction of these two giant brands already implies a softer stance and less cut-and-dried language than would often be the case for an athlete who was felt to have brought their sport into disrepute.
(Of course after the main-page headlines have died down, there are journalists who will continue to cover and investigate the story and should it be found that Sharapova’s press conference was less than fully confessional, the strategy outlined above will founder on the rocks.)
But are we seeing a change where the brands which were happy to pay the big money to be associated with sports are growing more powerful? It’s no secret that some of the major global names who sponsor world football expressed their views over the problems at FIFA, for example. And the debate over the precise part sportsmen and women should play in being role models burns ever brighter.
Ultimately, though, the lure of the bright lights and the superstar names is likely to continue paying dividends – as long as you have that cast-iron PR strategy in place for when things do go wrong.
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