When the news about Maria Sharapova’s doping test broke out I was a little bit shocked. As she announced the press conference, I suspected – as many others – that the big announcement would be the termination or the end of her career. To my astonishment, she announced she had failed a drug test. This case is not only an interesting one due to her fame and the unexpected headlines she made, but also due to its importance to PR. Here’s why.
The news broke out quickly. The announcement came as Sharapova received the ITF letter saying she failed the drug test. So… why is it of interest to PR (besides the obvious reputational tasks that come out of it)?
This will be remembered as a great crisis PR blueprint. She owned the story and was the first one to break it. She was the one who defined it and most people will remember other comments about the case as relation to what she said, not the other way around. There was no information from the ITF prior to the conference, nor were there any leaks about it. It pretty much was the textbook crisis management handling. She broadcast the conference on her website, broke the story and told it her way – in simple and unfolding manner.
As the crisis unfolded, other sides of the story came to see the daylight. Some said that her medical team should have noticed the drug got banned in January. Others pointed out that the drug is usually taken for much shorter than 10 years and that she had been warned five times by the authorities that she has been taking a banned drug. As a result, some sponsors pulled out from their Sharapova sponsorship (e.g. Nike) while some said they would not only stay with her, but extend contracts (e.g. Head). Even though Sharapova’s image has suffered, the blow has not been decisive. I haven’t been able to get a one-sided feeling from the news reports, like I expected to. There was no “SHE’S DONE HERE” moment.
This story makes me think of other crises that were not, and should have, been handled just like this one. They also show the importance of owning and directing the story. Take the Eurostar one, where the company failed to engage with its angry customers, while they were breaking the news and posting updates themselves while being stuck in the tunnel or waiting for a train. A simple fact of owning up to a mistake and breaking the news, while offering solution, would probably have been enough to start with. Instead, the story is being repeated as an example of bad crisis management.
The story is definitely worth remembering for all PR professionals. It is going to be really useful to properly understand how to handle a crisis, even if it seems like a definite nail to someone’s coffin.
BBC Sport: Maria Sharapova Failed Drugs Test at Australian Open. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/35750285
Burne-James, S. Top spin: PRs praise Maria Sharapova for controlling message after failed drugs test. Available from: http://www.prweek.com/article/1386440/top-spin-prs-praise-maria-sharapova-controlling-message-failed-drugs-test#g2tSdr5cGR8KUKuj.99
Piedra, M. Why the ‘Sharapova response’ will go down as a crisis communications blueprint. Available from: http://www.prweek.com/article/1386760/why-sharapova-response-will-go-down-crisis-communications-blueprint
PRWeek, Sharapova sponsor: We will work with ‘courageous’ star for many more years. Available from: http://www.prweek.com/article/1387021/sharapova-sponsor-will-work-courageous-star-years
Rogers, D. Sharapova may have played a blinder but it is tennis that needs to get a grip. Available from: http://www.prweek.com/article/1387322/sharapova-may-played-blinder-tennis-needs-grip
Vox Science and Health, Belluz, J. 5 Things to Know about Meldonium, the Drug Maria Sharapova has used for 10 Years. Available from: http://www.vox.com/2016/3/8/11179468/meldonium-drug-benefits-maria-sharapova
Washkuch, F. Sharapova masterful in press conference, but it might not be enough for a comeback. Available from: http://www.prweek.com/article/1387095/sharapova-masterful-press-conference-not-enough-comeback
Header Image: available HERE