In the space of a little over a week, two sports stars, well-liked until now, have found themselves at the receiving end of a not inconsiderable amount of media scorn and derision. The first, Maria Sharapova, announced that she had failed a drugs test and would be banned from the sport. The second, Lewis Hamilton, provoked ire after filming himself riding a Harley Davidson on an Auckland highway.
Beyond the fact that both episodes involved sports stars who are paid an eye-watering amount of money and probably ought to have known better, the similarities end there. The interest from a PR perspective is the very different approach taken in each case to dealing with a negative incident. One followed the crisis PR book to the letter; the other serves as a case study of how not to do it.
Maria Sharapova and her team played a PR blinder. Rather than hide or try to deflect attention away from bad news, she and her team got on the front-foot, called a press conference and set out the facts – essentially shaping the narrative on their own terms rather than allowing the story to be shaped by the media and commentariat, as it surely would have been had it been left to the media to unearth the facts and break the story first. One might argue that, in the cold light of day, it has done her little good. Her sponsors have cut their ties and her reputation has been tarnished.
However, it is not difficult to imagine that things might have been worse. Normally the lifespan of this kind of story is as follows: whispers and rumours on social media gradually build to a crescendo; print and broadcast media take note and start asking questions; silence from the person concerned gradually gives way to a grudging admission and, eventually, an apology. The result is usually a sense of a crisis gradually building over a number of weeks – and through dozens of news cycles – quite beyond the control of the person concerned. In this case, the tennis star cut to the chase, got the bad news out the way and, little over a week after the story broke, it is seldom seen on the pages of the press.
Compare this with the example of another sports star who has found himself in hot water. Lewis Hamilton is, by all accounts, a nice guy. I used to work with a charity that granted wishes to seriously ill children and he was one of their stalwart supporters, always ready to don his racing helmet to bring a smile and good cheer to the young racing fans who were bravely battling illness.
Yet, the fact remains: where Sharapova followed the crisis textbook to the letter, Hamilton has shown us how not to do it. Asked by the tenacious inquisitors of the press about his controversial bike selfie, his response was to say “I don’t have much of an answer for you, unfortunately”. Asked again, the star apparently shrugged and answered, again, “I don’t have much on an answer for you” – the PR equivalent of pulling down the shutters. Everyone makes mistakes and I do not judge. Perception is important and the star’s PR misstep runs the risk of giving the impression of someone who is aloof and defensive. Certainly there isn’t suggestion of any regret.
It didn’t need to be this way. Any PR adviser worth their salt would surely have suggested a different tack: apologise, express regret and move on. Journalists would likely have tired of the story at that point and the episode would be quickly forgotten. Instead, the incident will continue to be a waste of perfectly good newsprint for days to come.
What are the conclusions?
• The Sharapova episode shows us that where there is a high likelihood of negative publicity, one shouldn’t try to hide bad news and wait for others to break the story. Seize the initiative, present the facts (however unpalatable this may seem in the short term) and control the messaging from the outset.
• Refusing to comment might only serve to add fuel to the fire and extend the lifespan of a negative story. Express regret if you can, say you are sorry, and let the story move on.
• Oh, and don’t take selfies whilst riding a motorbike at high speed. It’s unlikely to end well.
Alex Goldup, Account Director