Andrew Touhy, Assistant Account Executive.
Allegations of cheating by an athlete can quickly and drastically change public perception, marketability and sponsorship revenue. Aside from personal integrity and reputation, for a high performing athlete, tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars hang in the balance. Reputations built over a career have been tarnished under the intense focus of today’s media cycle.
Tennis superstar Maria Sharapova failed a drug test in March, and on June 8, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) slapped Sharapova with a two-year suspension for her positive test of meldonium.
Sharapova has aggressively and personally managed her reputation throughout this crisis. Drawing lessons from other athletes and crisis management in general, she and her team have offered a textbook reputational defense:
- Be transparent about the facts – She told the world she failed the drug test
- Tell the story, however complicated, simply – Sharapova personally explained she was taking meldonium for a heart condition
- Get ahead of the next shoe to drop – Rather than waiting for a suspension to go public, she put the ITF, fans, sponsors and media on notice
- Never give up and keep fighting – Continue to tell the story that it was an inadvertent mistake
Her approach contrasts with other athletes. Rarely has an athlete so candidly explained an allegation of doping. Cycling has been a source of laughably bad explanations; remember the “Jack Daniels” excuse? Come on now.
A candid admission of any wrongdoing has never been the standard in sports. Instead, the traditional approach involves a vigorous denial and pushback of any misconduct. In a more bizarre twist, the denials often become public admissions, months if not years later. Public opinion has become jaded, and people tend not to believe an athlete’s initial statement surrounding steroid allegations. The pursuit and achievement of athletic excellence in the millennial generation has, sadly, become synonymous with deliberate cheating.
Track superstar Marion Jones went on to serve time in jail. Litanies of other athletes have come forward later to admit career-long use of performance enhancing drugs. Some even write books about doping.
There are still a lot of twists and turns left in this story. What is certain is the crisis communications timeline and plan will be studied and replicated by the legal and public relations teams of other superstar athletes in the crosshairs of a scandal.
In March, Sharapova publicly announced that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. She revealed and admitted to failing a drug test without the use of a spokesperson or by issuing a faceless written statement. She began her press conference by saying:
“I received a letter from the ITF that I failed a drugs test at the Australian Open. I take full responsibility for it. For the past 10 years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my family doctor and a few days ago after I received the ITF letter I found out that it also has another name of meldonium which I did not know.”
Sharapova went on to explain that her doctor had prescribed the drug meldonium for a heart-health issue since 2006. The ITF banned the substance on Jan. 1, 2016.
This was a simple, easy to understand explanation of the circumstances that lead to this issue, and was delivered by the athlete herself. While some have expressed skepticism that her medical team could have made such an inadvertent error, Sharapova took ownership and inserted her circumstances into international media coverage.
By providing the facts there was less opportunity for the media to speculate on how this may have occurred.
As of today, several of her brand sponsors, including Nike and Porsche suspended their endorsements, though they have not terminated their deals. Others sponsors though, including Avon, Head, and Evian, have stuck by Sharapova.
Sharapova immediately responded to the IFT suspension in Facebook post, piggybacking on her initial upfront and transparent approach, writing that the IFT tribunal concluded what she did was unintentional and she will immediately appeal the suspension.
She took to her personal social media account to issue a statement that was void of legalese and PR jargon. She communicated directly to her to her fans and to the media, and was explicit about what happened, what is at stake, and how she will proceed.
Today’s fast-paced media cycle is always hungry for a juicy story. The style in which Sharapova responded to the suspension deprived the media of breaking news, shortening the focus of the story.
This reputational defense is one for the textbooks.