Top spin: PRs praise Maria Sharapova for controlling message after failed drugs test

PR professionals say tennis ace Maria Sharapova and her team had "followed the crisis playbook to the letter" in announcing that she had failed a drugs test and would be banned from the sport.

Top spin? Sharapova at yesterday's annoucement (Credit: Damian Dovarganes / AP/Press Association Images)
Top spin? Sharapova at yesterday's annoucement (Credit: Damian Dovarganes / AP/Press Association Images)

The Russian former world number one, also an ambassador for or the face of a number of global brands including her own range of sweets, called a press conference in the US yesterday.

At the conference, she announced that she had failed a drugs test in January, as a result of the drug meldonium, which she had been taking on the advice of a doctor since 2006. The drug was recently added to the list of banned substances.

"Throughout my long career, I have been very open and honest about many things, and I take great responsibility and professionalism in my job every single day, and I made a huge mistake," Sharapova said. "I let my fans down, and this sport down that I've been playing since the age of four and that I love so deeply.

She will be provisionally suspended from the sport starting Saturday, 12 March, after which the tennis authorities will decide her full punishment.

Nick Meakin, business development director at Pitch, said it was "eye-catching that Sharapova was able to make the announcement herself and so was able to control how the story is presented from the offset".

He said: "There were no leaks, no statement from the ITF governing body, no social media rumours. The five-time Grand Slam Champion called the press conference, rehearsed the script and even broadcast the announcement on her own personal website. It was a textbook method of controlling bad news."

"In controlling the message, the narrative quickly changed from ‘Russian drug cheat’ to something a lot less clear-cut," Meakin said - adding that this positive press could help reduce the length of Sharapova's ban and give her another chance to compete.

David Alexander, managing director of Calacus Public Relations and a former national football writer, agreed, saying: "She’s followed the crisis playbook to the letter, fronting up for a press conference, explaining why the oversight occurred and in no way trying to absolve herself of her responsibilities to compete cleanly."

Alexander went on to say that he suspected Sharapova would "bounce back sooner rather than later" - and followers of PRWeek UK on Twitter have also said they are not writing the star off yet.

Kate Miller, head of sport & media at Mischief PR offered an opposing view, saying: "While Sharapova pre-empted the news by calling her own press conference, contrition needed to be more powerfully conveyed to media and fans alike. With sponsors instantly distancing themselves from the star, her attempts to own the story may be too little, too late."

However, brands associated with Sharapova have already responded and in some cases ended or suspended relations with the Russian – most notably Nike, which said in a statement: "We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova. We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation."

Meanwhile, as reported in PRWeek sister title Marketing magazine, Sharapova’s other brand partners are reacting to the news. Watch brand Tag Heuer has said it will not renew its contract with Sharapova, while mineral water brand Evian has not yet responded to requests – the tennis star is due to appear in its upcoming advertising campaign. Other brands associated with the star include Avon, tennis racquet maker Head and sunscreen brand Supergoop, and she also launched her own brand of high-end confectionery, Sugarpova, in 2012.

Anna Reynolds also contributed to this report

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