Athletics doping crisis: Are Lord Coe and the IAAF on the right PR track?

Was Lord Coe and the world athletics body the IAAF right to hit back so strongly against allegations of widespread doping in the sport? And how could it affect Coe's bid to become IAAF president? PRWeek asks the experts.

Lord Seb Coe: Outspoken attack, but is it the right tactic?
Lord Seb Coe: Outspoken attack, but is it the right tactic?

Lord Seb Coe didn’t mince his words on Tuesday when criticising allegations in The Sunday Times that doping was commonplace in athletics.

"The fightback has to start here," he told the BBC. "It is a declaration of war on my sport."

Coe’s tough talk came as the IAAF (The International Association of Athletics Federations) published a nine-page rebuttal of The Sunday Times claims, which were also reported by German broadcaster ARD/WDR. The IAAF’s statements were equally blunt, slating the reports as "simply false, disappointing, and misinformed journalism".

Coe, who recently spoke to PRWeek at length as part of a special edition on sport and PR, is currently the IAAF’s vice-president and is bidding to take the top job after the incumbent steps down in August.

PRWeek sought the views of PR experts about Coe and the IAAF’s approach to the crisis, and asked if it was the right tactic.


Yes - Steph Burke, associate director, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment

The reality is that the level of passion around doping/cheating in sport requires a response as passionate as the IAAF has put together. Just look at the incident during the Tour de France when Chris Froome had urine thrown on him by fans who were suspicious – fans do not take doping issues lightly. Unfortunately, athletics has been tainted by some high profile doping cases over the years, so it doesn’t take much for consumers’ minds to go there.

The Sunday Times article is clearly enough to make fans start asking questions. So the IAAF did exactly what it needed to do to defend the sport and correctly point out any inaccuracies as it sees them in the reporting. The real question is: do consumers care about the fine print? Will their minds be made up based on the ‘top line’ information or will they care to dig into the details to hear both sides?

For the IAAF, it will likely take more than a factual response to really change opinions. What’s next is finding a way to be proactive and transparent in promoting its commitment to clean sport. And finding faces, role models, who can show the world competing clean is core to the sport of athletics.


Yes - Mark Wenham, consultant, Insignia

The decision to speak early some would say is brave and while this is a matter that Lord Coe clearly feels passionately about, there is also some risk in speaking out at this stage.

The risk of going early and establishing a definite position on a subject is that if subsequently found to be wrong there will undoubtedly be reputational damage both to the sport, the organisation and the individual. Conversely, Lord Coe clearly feels that the position of the IAAF needs to be stated in the strongest possible terms against the allegations that are being made.

On this occasion, Lord Coe, one of the most respected people in athletics, and sport more widely, has chosen to speak out and occupy the information space. While this will clearly bring him, his own reputation and the IAAF, directly into the spotlight, it also avoids others from filling the space with conjecture and unequivocally establishes the IAAF’s position. As Northcote Parkinson famously observed: "The vacuum caused by the failure to communicate is soon filled with rumour, misrepresentation, drivel and poison."

Not only that, but for someone as famous and highly respected as Lord Coe to take a stand on this matter adds greatly to the credibility of the argument. Sceptics might say that they would expect no less from someone who is in the running (no pun intended) for president of the IAAF.

I would suggest that most will see a man who not only believes passionately in the work of the IAAF to clean up the sport of athletics over recent years but who has been actively involved in the clean-up himself, and is doing all he can to protect the reputation of his sport, the federation and his fellow athletes. I suspect many others would not have had the courage to take this position.


No - Kate Miller, head of media, Golin

Were Lord Coe and the IAAF’s response to The Sunday Times’ doping claims appropriate? I would suggest not. Scrutiny is heightening against athletics. Last weekend’s story ran fresh on the heels of the BBC’s piece on [UK athletics coach] Alberto Salazaar, and momentum is building against the sport.

This was the time to be dogmatic about intent, not angry that there was exposure. The sport cannot boast a whiter-than-white reputation. Until it can, anger will only engender further cynicism. The time is now to reassert resolve on removing the association between drugs and athletics forever. Otherwise you lose the credibility, the sponsors, and the public’s adoration.

No - Jolyon Kimble, director, APCO Worldwide

The battle between Lord Coe, the IAAF and The Sunday Times playing out this week can only be understood in the context of four widely-held beliefs that the protagonists forget at their peril.

While Coe may characterise the Sunday Times allegations of widespread doping as a "declaration of war", the public brings the following assumptions to this story: first, that a lot of athletes are taking performance-enhancing drugs  – ‘they’re all at it’; second, that Lord Coe, hero of 2012, is a pretty straight kind of guy; third, that sports governance, which Coe wants to be part of, is generally toxic; fourth, that newspapers are generally hateful but the Sunday Times is a bit different – didn’t they bring down FIFA?

The two sides fighting this battle have to remember those four points at all times. The IAAF has to be careful here. It came out on Sunday and said the data was obtained without consent. Please. Then it came out too quickly with a detailed rebuttal - a point not missed by The Sunday Times’ parent company, NewsUK, in its tit-for-tat response to the IAAF statement.

The Sunday Times, in a story that must have been legalled exhaustively, was clever to clear the names of some athletes. There’s no reason for them to weigh in, and other athletes may wonder what the paper holds on them. Divisive and clever.

The IAAF is isolated. Coe is the only credible advocate. Some will suggest that the reason Coe came out so strongly is because he senses this. The public knows he is running to lead the IAAF and that creates cynicism and weakens his play in public, but also strengthens his hand within the organisation.

This week he has talked about defending ‘my sport’ and people respect that passion. Many will sympathise, saying he has to fight back, that the continuing credibility of the sport he loves demands it. He did have another option, though, which was to say that he was going to set the IAAF’s house in order, employ more testers. Time will tell whether he should have taken it, but then, maybe he has to get to the top of the organisation first before he can start saying things like that.

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