Why the 'Sharapova response' will go down as a crisis communications blueprint

The tennis star's forthrightness is a case study in proper reputation management. It's a stunningly bold and mature handling of the crisis, especially considering her youth.

Maria Sharapova in 2014. Image via Valentina Alemanno / Wikimedia Commons; Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Maria Sharapova in 2014. Image via Valentina Alemanno / Wikimedia Commons; Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

For a communications professional who cut his teeth in crisis management, it’s been fascinating to see the rapid developments in that hellish concentration over the past decade. Nowhere is the change more dramatic than the fallout after an athlete is implicated in a doping scandal.

That change was crystallized this week when tennis superstar and crossover celeb Maria Sharapova announced that the International Tennis Federation found a banned substance in her blood test at the Australian Open in January.

Crisis communication strategies are a lot like natural selection: the survivors adjust, inch-by-inch, year-by-year, adapting to the changing environment.

And the environment can be quite cynical. Denials, no-comments, and refutations have become standard responses, and the public in turn has become jaded. We tend not to believe the initial statements when allegations surface. That’s why Sharapova’s preemptive admission, while refreshingly honest, could also be a path for communicating crises in the 21st century.

We live in an era when it is not uncommon for the world’s largest brands to err in profoundly damaging ways, presidential candidates make inflammatory remarks and are no longer compelled to apologize for them or regard them as "flubs" or "gaffes," and the pontiff himself takes bold stances on secular issues.

But while PR practices in business, politics, and religion have been muddied, sports have remained sacrosanct, right? We are just a few years removed from scandals that permanently tarred the careers of premier athletes such as San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. To a generation of fans, their relentless pursuit of excellence has become a symbol of wanton cheating.

Sharapova, by contrast, has allegedly taken meldonium since 2006 due to health issues, and the drug only recently became banned by tennis. Her circumstances — and her response — are worlds apart. Her tack was one of honesty, directness, and accountability. She did not use spokespeople or press releases or even Oprah to come clean. In doing so, she has saved herself countless hours of brand-damaging news reports.

Her forthrightness is a case study in proper reputation management. It’s a stunningly bold and mature handling of the crisis, especially considering her youth as compared to the old hands who vainly clung to their claims of innocence, and the even older PR axiom that tells us to "deny, deny, deny."

The rapid, proactive response employed by Sharapova stands in stark contrast with the responses of stars past. Both Bonds and Armstrong, and literally dozens of other luminaries, have fought tooth and nail the very allegations of PED use, going so far as to defame and professionally damage the messengers — journalists, testing agents, and officials.

Sports brands have recognized the fact that lying to cover up the wrongdoing is usually far worse than the wrong that was done. The savviest communicators have evolved from "deny" to "accept the possibility" to "be proactive."

Consider what has endured from those past PED controversies: Lance Armstrong continues to be vilified, not so much for cheating but for the careers he destroyed during his denial phase. Barry Bonds’ most egregious crime is considered by many to be the doomed multimillion-dollar prosecution he dared the U.S. government to undertake against him. It’s not the blowback, it’s the blow-forward — the outward aggression, the offensive posture, that really destroys the individual brand. Sharapova used honesty to head it off.

Getting out in front of the story — let’s call this "the Sharapova Response" — means owning the narrative. Information flows from the source directly to the media, unfiltered, and even if it is obscured later it is done through the lens of an initially honest act. There are no wars to wage, no careers to ruin, no reputations to compromise beyond the athlete’s, which was going to happen anyway. Today’s news cycle is fast. The fastest way to starve it is to remove the fresh meat, and it will wander off in search of its next meal.

On Tuesday, the ax came down on Sharapova: Nike, Tag Heuer, and Porsche have suspended their sponsorships. This is a predictable response, as those sponsors have brands to protect, too. But rather than damning betrayals, these moves should be seen as a quick rip of the Band-Aid, rather than a slow, torturous one. Now the Sharapova brand can quickly pivot to the rehabilitation stage.

Sharapova is already finding support among colleagues. No less than Serena Williams, considered by many the best woman ever to play the sport, has said Sharapova displayed "a lot of courage" in admitting her offense.

As long as millions of dollars are doled out to professional athletes, there will be those who try to cheat and who get caught. While her situation is unique, the Sharapova Response was forthright and disarming in its effectiveness. We are looking at a new crisis management strategy that will become the prevailing approach in coming years — own up to it, and get past it.

Miguel Piedra is principal and managing partner of RockOrange, based in Miami.  

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