Whatever the outcome of Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test, and its ultimate impact on her future tennis career, the media handling of the announcement is a classic example of being in control of the message.
In the hours before her appearance in front of the world’s media in Los Angeles, the speculation on Twitter was that at the age of 28 she was to retire from the game after she used the social media platform to announce the press conference.
At this stage, no official announcement had been made by the world anti-doping body WADA and no leaks had emerged, which in the age of social media, can quickly lead to damaging speculation and loss of control of the message.
It cannot be overlooked that this is happening against a backdrop of allegations involving a Russian whose country is currently under scrutiny for an alleged doping programme involving Olympic athletes.
Her approach meant she was in the position to break the news of her failed drug test and to put forward her explanation as to why it happened. Sharapova didn’t leave it to legal representatives or her management team to face the media, she led from the front.
Whatever may come to pass with the case, and no judgement is made here, from a crisis communications and reputation management perspective her actions provide useful insights.
The Russian tennis star didn’t hide leaving the media seeking to track her down with potential images showing her seemingly running away. She admitted that she had been taking the substance for 10 years for medical reasons and had been caught by a rule change.
In the conference she was able to outline the case and provide her mitigation. The media were left to seek out more information about the substance rather than making the story a deconstruction of Sharapova and her achievements.
All of this is in contrast to the questions which surrounded Margaret Byrne, the chief executive of Sunderland Football Club, this week about how much she knew about the details of the case surrounding the team’s player Adam Johnson after he was found guilty in a court of law. As media interest grew she was reported to have left for her villa in The Algarve leaving a void and media speculation to grow for a week before she returned and resigned via a press statement.
There is much to learn from the handling of these contrasting situations and it will be interesting to see how Sharapova’s position progresses and if the tennis star is able to maintain control of the story. In contrast Sunderland was not in control of the developing story.
Key lessons for organisations from these situations are that it is important to act acting early as crisis or reputational issue arise, use a senior representative to lead and be open and honest about the situation.