Controlling the story: Sharapova’s textbook example of crisis management

Maria SharapovaBad news hits everyone at some point: mistakes happen, and they are rarely catastrophic.

Twenty years ago and more, people would talk about bad news just being ‘tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’, referring to the fact that chip shops used to use newspapers to wrap up their food for customers. What it meant was that news – good or bad – was quickly forgotten about and that the world moves on.

The world has indeed moved on: people predominantly use digital and broadcast media to get their news, and chips shops just use plain white paper now. It’s for the best: you can’t wrap chips with an iPad.

Despite that, and despite social media being, at times, many times more venomous than the worst tabloid newspaper, it still moves on pretty quickly.

People can be pretty forgiving, and more often than not will place more importance on the way in which a person or a company responds to mistakes, than on the seriousness of the mistake itself.

This is why crisis management remains a critical element of any public relations strategy. The way a company acts in response to incidents or criticism is arguably more important now, in the social media age, than ever before.

The art of ‘coming clean’ is a finely-honed way of helping to minimise damage, and one which has created global headlines today (March 8th, 2016).

This blog was inspired by a textbook example of coming clean, in which a world-famous sports star has admitted they have made a mistake, and taken the unusual step of revealing this to the world on their own terms.

The star in question is tennis player Maria Sharapova, who has admitted to having failed a drugs test, and, rather than attempt to cover it up, or deny any wrongdoing, or waiting until she has news of whether she is to be banned, she has hit the story head-on in a bid to take control.

She hasn’t been able to mitigate the negative headlines – words to the effect of ‘Sharapova fails drug test’ are on the front of newspapers across the world today.

But by coming clean, she has been able to get her side of the story across. It was a prescribed drug she was taking, she had taken it for many years, and it was only banned for the first time at the start of 2016. She’s made a mistake, wasn’t attempting to cheat, and has taken proactive steps to minimise any reputational damage.

There will still be many serious questions asked of her, and rightly so. She is likely to face a ban, and her main sponsor, Nike, has suspended its arrangement with her. There will be repercussions, but she has faced up to those and has already apologised for her mistake.

However, her positive action in March is likely to stand her in good stead for a full come-back. It has laid the foundations for people to believe that she made an honest mistake, as opposed to intentionally taking performance-enhancing drugs, and I’d be prepared to bet that most people will see her side of the story.

It was a textbook example of taking control of the story and minimising the long-term damage by appearing to be honest and human. It’s only one of many, many strategically-sound approaches to crisis management, but it’s a good one.

Newcastle SEO firm Podium handles social media management, PR and crisis management. We specialise in helping tell people your good news, and managing your bad news effectively too.

Picture credit: Yann Caradec