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Calm head in a crisis | 7 ways to deal with a negative news story

“IT IS RARELY THE CRISIS that destroys a reputation – it is how you deal with it that shapes the future.”

So said David Alexander, managing director of independent sports PR consultancy Calacus when SportBusiness International asked him to reflect on the way that Maria Sharapova handled the news of her recent drug offence.

Ignoring for a second whether Sharapova was guilty of doping, or indeed whether it was sensible for her to say so much in her press conference now that Wada has issued new guidance about Meldonium, Alexander has a grudging respect for the choreography of the Los Angeles press conference and Sharapova’s performance in front of the cameras.

“She was humble and proactive, took responsibility and accepted that she had let down her fans and her sport, rather than focusing on her own personal reputational damage as some sports stars may have done.”

So what else can we learn from the Russian star’s story? SportBusiness International approached four experts in crisis management to speak about her case and others like it.

Our panel of specialists included:

  • David Alexander, managing director of sports PR consultancy Calacus
  • Steve Martin, CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment
  • Dick Pound, former vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
  • Michael Payne, former marketing and global broadcast rights director of the IOC

1. ESTABLISH THE FACTS

It might seem obvious, but the first thing all of our PR experts recommended was to establish the facts of the crisis. The value of doing so has been fully reinforced by the Sharapova story where changes to Wada guidance on Meldonium might have caused the tennis player’s communications team to regret holding a press conference so swiftly.

“Whatever the issue, from a communications perspective, you don’t want any more nasty surprises,” Alexander said. Depending on the sensitivities or the gravity of the issue, he said that his company also frequently seeks legal advice.

“[That could be the legal counsel] used by the sports star, or one we already collaborate with, to ensure we take contracts and statutes into account and address any relevant complications that may arise.” For the subsequent PR response to abide by the industry’s code of ethics, Alexander said that the sports personality or organisation in question also has to admit they have a problem, if this is indeed the case.

He explained: “If someone is guilty of cheating, such as in the case of Lance Armstrong, they still need to accept and admit their guilt regardless of the financial or reputational consequences. Public relations advisers are there to help with the shaping and sharing of the story, not to create spin which provides half-truths.”

2. TAILOR THE RESPONSE TO THE CRISIS

Once you are aware of the problem, you can decide on the way you want to respond. But even then, Steve Martin, CEO at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, urges restraint.

“I think this desire to hold big press conferences isn’t a trap you necessarily need to fall into,” he said.

“You might do a placed one-to-one with a group of media rather than broadcasting to the world. In fact, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. Each case is different.”

Martin cites the example of Manchester United and English Premier League footballer Ryan Giggs, who remained completely silent while allegations about extra-marital affairs swirled around him. This starved what was essentially a story based on gossip and tittletattle of the fuel it needed to keep running.

Elsewhere, in the case of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, former IOC vice-president Dick Pound revealed that the organisation’s approach to the scandal was to be as transparent as possible.

Pound told SportBusiness International: “Our approach was to say: ‘We’re doing an investigation, a lot of it is very sensitive so we’re not going to tell you where we think we might be heading. All we can say is that we’re going to do a complete job and as soon as we have something to say, we’ll be happy to announce what it is’.”

Martin stressed that no crisis is exactly the same and this is where he recommended seeking professional advice.

He said: “You have to have a communications strategy or an issues management strategy that fits the crime and that’s where you need the bespoke counsel as opposed to a one-size-fits-all [approach].”

3. SELECT THE MEDIUM AND THE SPOKESPERSON

According to Martin, the medium that you use to broadcast the message is as important as the message itself.

“Broadcast tends to be the most credible and sincere form of media,” he said.

“There was a reason why Sharapova did her press conference live – because that way it can’t be edited and it becomes a moment where you can’t question that it’s coming from her.”

Another strength of the Sharapova conference, according to Alexander, was that she answered questions at the end. This was preferable, he thought, to the approach adopted by Tiger Woods when he failed to take questions after issuing a public apology about his indiscretions.

“‘No comment’ or using a spokesman is not an option – it gives the impression of guilt and that you have something to hide,” Alexander said.

However, in the case of a sponsor or organisation, Martin said that a spokesperson would be preferable to issuing a faceless press release.

“Sometimes it can look quite clinical and cold from a brand if it’s not humanised, so you’ve got to think who is the best spokesperson for the message you want to put out,” he added.

Further down the line, Alexander thinks that if the story raises questions that a client wishes to address, it might be appropriate to issue a follow-up statement, as Sharapova did via Facebook, to clarify some concerns that had been raised about the veracity of her initial statements.

4. BE CONSISTENT

During the Salt Lake City scandal Pound estimated that he was getting 40 calls a day from journalists. He began to lose track of the message he was trying to put out.

“At some point or other you can no longer remember what you’ve said to whom and whether you’re repeating something you’ve already said to someone else,” he said.

To overcome this, he set up a regular conference call with journalists. “We said that there would be a regular call at 5pm eastern time, so we could get Europe and the other parts of the world involved. We only had to do it once and everybody heard the same thing,” he said.

Pound believes that the IAAF scandal was made worse because it took place during an election for the presidency, which made consistency of message difficult to achieve.

“You had two quite different candidates jockeying around the very uncomfortable facts that were coming out and that made a concerted response more difficult to organise,” he added.

Martin said that consistency of message also has to be applied across different media.

“It’s really important that you support the consistency of it across all channels, so you’re not doing one thing on live TV and then going off on Twitter and ranting. You also have to make sure that you’re not overcooking the story, saying things you don’t need to talk about and bringing in new angles and new hooks to a story,” he said.

5. BE CIRCUMSPECT ON SOCIAL MEDIA

The IOC’s former head of marketing, Michael Payne, thinks that the Salt Lake City scandal would have been much trickier to manage in the present day. “We didn’t have the same 24-hour news network coverage and these days crises tend to be compounded by 24-hour social media engagement,” he said. “Now you’ve got to be able to respond in minutes.”

Alexander would advise against responding to anything on social media without thinking things through. “Whether you are a global superstar like Sharapova or a much smaller organisation, responding to criticisms on social media is not advisable at all. For a start, you could get overwhelmed by comments, you could find yourself repeating the same things to remain consistent and drawn into potential arguments or disputes that are inappropriate.”

One of the mistakes the Sharapova team made during the handling of her doping crisis, according to Martin, was to trail her press conference on social media the day before. “They tried to tease it through social media which is why everyone thought she was going to retire,” he said. “All that did was fuel the story and make sure everybody watched.”

6. SPIKE THE POLITICIANS (AND THE ‘JERKS’)

“Sport is absolutely heaven-sent for politicians to go and grandstand, and look for headline-grabbing opportunities,” Payne said.

Payne saw clear evidence of this when a US congressman tried to provoke IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch into a reaction with some inflammatory comments during a congressional hearing into the Salt Lake City voting scandal. Samaranch’s response? He answered the congressman in his native Spanish and ruined the politician’s chances of appearing on the nightly news with a 30-second sound bite.

Pound adopted an equally artful approach towards journalists he identified as having a negative agenda in his regular conference calls with the media. “If you’ve got some person who’s a complete jerk on the line, you identify them before the call,” he said. “And when his time comes up [for a question], keep dropping him to the bottom of the list until you run out of time – there’s a mechanism that puts them back down to the bottom.”

7. KEEP YOUR STAKEHOLDERS INFORMED

“What we do [in a crisis] is ensure that we share information in a co-ordinated manner with sponsors or other key stakeholders, so that they did not feel uninformed by developments which may ultimately affect their brands as well,” Alexander said. This was also the modus operandi for the IOC when it dealt with the fallout from the Salt Lake scandal. During the crisis Payne famously engaged in a round of shuttle diplomacy of such urgency that he flew by Concorde to keep the IOC’s sponsors from pulling their support.

Pound said that the IOC was also able to point to research that suggested that the scandal was not damaging the overall Olympic brand. He would not recommend trying to lie to a sponsor if the opposite happens to be true.

“You can’t bullshit your sponsors,” he said. “If you’re dealing with Coca-Cola and companies of that nature, they’ve got their own research going on. If you’re saying everything is rosy and their research is showing that it’s not, then you make the gap between you and your sponsor even bigger.” The only problem with such close levels of stakeholder engagement, according to Alexander, is that it makes leaks to the press more likely. Martin warns that there is also an increasing tendency for sponsors to take ownership of stories and go it alone.

“You’re seeing a power shift and sports sponsors taking things into their own hands rather than letting a third party or rights-holder control all of the communication around any scandal. I think that’s absolutely right and I think in the past [sponsors] have probably been a bit too subservient to rights-holders when actually they are the ones that are the customers.

“My advice would be take control, have your own point of view and don’t just go in on the coat tails of the rights-holder and hope that your brand will come out clean and rosy. You need to have your own issues and crisis management strategy, and your own channels of communication.”

IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

Sports personalities and figureheads need to be aware that the imagery that accompanies a crisis can be as powerful as the words they utter in their press conference. Here we look at some examples of sound – and questionable – media management through images.

THE BAD

“The whole image of Blatter will be tainted by the photo of the prankster throwing the dollar bills up in the air. That image will be in the public domain for many years and will sum up that whole era,” said Martin. “You have to be conscious that everything will be photographed. You can’t switch on and off.”

THE GOOD

“Sharapova was quite clever after she did that press conference to be seen in public in LA, almost leading a normal life,” Martin said. “The image association was that she was getting on with things, there’s a normal life and we move on. That was important versus the stage setting for her press conference."

THE BAD

“I would not have recommended that Tiger Woods kiss his Mum at the end of his press conference after details about his personal life emerged,” Alexander said. “That certainly looked staged and basically said: ‘My mum has unconditional love for me, even if I have betrayed my wife and treated other women badly’.”

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