Crisis comms is a whole new ball game

Today's 24-7 media world adds to the challenge that PR pros face at scandal-riddled pro sports leagues

Today's 24-7 media world adds to the challenge that PR pros face at scandal-riddled pro sports leagues

The avalanche of pro sports scandals that sullied the industry last week earned not just sports-section coverage - it was front-page news.

Fresh scandals rocked two of the four major US sports leagues, threatening both the reputation of individual players and the integrity of each sport, while a third league was bracing to have its most cherished record broken by a player under suspicion.

Yet American pro sports have a long legacy of corruption - Michael Vick isn't the first pro football player to be accused of being engaged in off-field violence; just as Tim Donaghy likely isn't the NBA's first referee to battle a gambling addiction and Barry Bonds isn't the first Major League Baseball star to face allegations of steroid use. So what has changed - the public's appetite for scandal or the nature of the coverage itself?

"Clearly, the nature of the media landscape today will add legs and legacy to these stories that is well beyond what has happened in the past," says Scott Novak, SVP at Dan Klores Communications. "Anywhere you look you are confronted with these stories."

 PR pros frequently point to the Internet, the blogosphere, and the 24-hour cycle,
for transforming their role and adding to the challenge of image and information control. New media may allow readers to monitor stories hour-by-hour, but the PR challenge remains the same - saving face.

"This is an incredibly negative trend right now," says Novak. "[People are now] saying what is wrong with American sports." The scandals have also put the game itself on
the backburner. "It really dilutes the impact of wins and losses," he adds.

It's unlikely that these crises will lessen game coverage, but there will be a lasting impact. Basketball fans may now wonder whether the game they're watching was fixed, and as Bonds moves closer to breaking Hank Aaron's home run record, stories will carry the taint of steroid use - whether the issue is raised or not, warns Novak.

"I think time heals all wounds," Novak points out, "although right now it probably feels like the games will never be the same again. People are forgiving."

The prominence of these stories has also changed how the media handles coverage.
"Many of those stories are not being covered by sports reporters or even sports editors - they are so big they make it to the front page and it's the managing editor or supervising editor handling them," says Mike Paul, president/senior counselor MGP & Associates PR. This has left some sports reporters disgruntled, he notes.

"There is a huge prize now for doing a thorough investigation of crisis issues - whether in sports or corporate America," he adds. Even scaled-back newsrooms haven't changed this, he says, because there are now more freelancers to chase these stories.

Jeff Schultz, sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says reporters from both news and sports are usually assigned to big sports stories.

"We had 10 Michael Vick stories in the paper the other day," Schultz says via e-mail. "Six in the A section and four in sports, but I'm guessing the bylines between 'sports' and 'news' people were even."

Some believe the media could do a better job of highlighting the real issues surrounding these crises.

Michael McGraw, director of media relations at PETA, praised the media's coverage of the NFL's dogfighting crisis, but says that the articles about the scandals remain focused on the celebrity rather than the issue.

"It's a sad comment on the news media today that so often it takes a celebrity to draw attention to a serious issue," he says.

Timing matters, too. These scandals aren't competing with college sports or playoff games right now. "This is a perfect storm of PR crises that will not be diluted by the typically crowded sports calendar," Novak says.

The NFL, NBA, and MLB did not respond to calls by press time.

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