Maria Sharapova and the art of crisis PR management

By Nigel Morgan

It is a fallacy that ostriches stick their heads in the sand when frightened, but it still works as a metaphor for how most people behave when faced with a PR crisis, and like the apocryphal ostrich, the truth rarely matters once the crisis unfolds.

Big brands get this wrong all the time (Thomas Cook anyone? VW? The list is long!) and some think sticking their head in the sand, or offering a meagre holding statement, or weasel-worded plausible deniability is effective crisis PR. It is an effective way to turn a PR problem into a crisis for sure.
Sharapova is effectively a big brand. Figures seem to vary, but apparently she has been the top earning sportswomen for the past seven years and tops £30 million each year in sponsorship and associated deals.

Powerful announcement

The footage of her being open, contrite and hopeful it would not mean the end of her career has contrasted to the shots of ‘drug cheats’ being hounded from car to hotel by hordes of hungry media, of them trying to dodge or ignore the questions that dog every press appearance thereafter

Art of Crisis Management

In a nutshell, she admitted taking a substance called ‘Meldonium’ for the past 10 years and it became a banned substance for performance enhancing fears at the start of 2016. She effectively missed the memo and failed the test. So ignorance rather than deceit and potentially a two-year-ban rather than four-year.

Setting the narrative

It set the tone. The questions were respectful and the overall response from journalists who had been expecting the 28-year-old to announce her retirement were sympathetic and so was the initial coverage which has focused muchly on the drug she took and whether or not it enhances performance.
The sponsorship brands are naturally distancing themselves, but will be back. Brand Sharapova is too valuable to stand on principle. Although maybe Porsche has shown some deft PR sense too by supporting her, but specifically ruling out a new deal.
What the tennis star has done is set the narrative with her appearance in Los Angeles before the unprepared media. She is not playing catch up and fighting negative stories that were written before she was approached for a comment.

Social media support

So much so when former tennis star Jennifer Capriati tweeted her anger, such was the backlash she deleted the tweets. Now that is social media equivalent of pitchforks and flaming torches, but it does illustrate precisely where the narrative is.
With weeks to prepare Sharapova was polished and may yet survive this crisis with her reputation only modestly tarnished and her career only moderately delayed. Think of the good she good could do in the meantime to enhance her reputation?

What can you do to avoid a PR crisis?

While some crises do happen without warning, most can actually be anticipated with a simple round of ‘what if’ in the boardroom. Once you know the ‘what ifs’ it is relatively straightforward to create and rehearse the how you would deal with these scenarios. Staff can be trained to appear in front of the media – something of course Sharapova was already adept at.
I chased crises as a journalist and then learned crisis PR skills as a police press officer and have been putting those to practice within PR for the last 15 years and know the difference the right timely advice can make to the success… or failure of a business facing a PR crisis.

Useful crisis PR resources

My colleague Tim Prizeman, founder of Kelso Consulting – Headline thinking, hardline results has written about ‘Protecting your reputation: preventing crises turning into PR disasters’ and we also have a useful white paper you can download all about ‘Why some companies turn a crisis into a PR disaster – and how not to be one of them’

 

 

 

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