Sharapova 101: How to beat a media scandal

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I’ve seen it a million times before, and will see it countless times again. A media scandal hits- whether relating to a brand, government agency, or individual- and the press rushes into action.

Cue scores of headlines, sensationalist stories, the obligatory search for further evidence, statements from witnesses, victims, experts, and whoever else is willing to offer their two pence on whatever misdemeanour has been perpetrated. For those caught in the thick of this fight for readers, viewers and listeners, it’s easy to stick a proverbial head in the sand, and hope it all goes away.
Sadly for them, I’ve got some news of my own- this tactic never works. By ignoring the problem it doesn’t disappear, but rather grows, sometimes even mutates, and before you know it a reputation has been burnt to the ground. What’s left is nothing more than a shred of credibility. If that.
This doesn’t always have to be the case, though. Whilst Smoking Gun PR’s work is often very much in the public eye we also graft tirelessly behind the scenes of company and family names. Our sterling reputation for reputation and crisis management didn’t happen overnight. We’re masters at advising on the best way to try and douse the flames of an image fire. But not everybody needs our help.
Maria Sharapova is a case in point. At the beginning of March the tennis star and multiple grand slam champion admitted to taking the banned substance meldonium after failing a drug test. Naturally, furore ensued, few in the sport were speaking out to support her, Nike cancelled its sponsorship deal, and it seemed like another household face was in a free fall from grace.
Yet there’s a huge difference in this instance compared with so many similar situations. The press were, surprisingly, divided in opinion as to whether she should be given some leniency, the public matched for perspective. And for one significant reason.
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Meldonium only made it onto the banned list at the very beginning of 2016 (1st January), and her use dated back roughly a decade. Even so, this still means she broke the rules. But, before the media circus could kick into top gear she had already openly admitted her mistake, apologised, and issued a formal statement in which nothing was denied, and everything confessed. She took personal blame for what she puts in her body, not fudging the issue onto her advisors and support team.
This means the story had already been told long before most articles could be commissioned. Sharapova took control of her own scandal, and in doing so left journalists with very little to say, other than the basic facts, which, by nature, had to include how she came clean. Any opinion writing would take this into account, and the most attention grabbing angle for a reporter to take involved questioning whether she should be forgiven.
Almost one month on, and a quick news search for Sharapova on Google reveals how effective this has been. The top result might be ‘Why everyone in tennis hates Maria Sharapova’, but most other suggestions relate to fellow tennis champ Roger Federer’s demand for stricter drug testing (apparently he was only tested once in a decade whilst living in Dubai), and Sharapova wearing a bikini on holiday.
According to The Marketing Arm’s Celebrity DBI- an index of how the public perceives people in the limelight- trust in Sharapova plummeted after the scandal emerged. Yet her overall appeal remained undamaged, suggesting she has a very good chance of bouncing back. As this story from NBC-affiliate news site, WVTM 13, claims [LINK].
The point being, God forbid you and yours should ever land in hot water, taking the upper hand in the media stakes- even if that means admitting guilt, with an apology (of course)- is the only way to play the game. [Tweet “The point being, God forbid you and yours should ever land in hot water, taking the upper hand in the media stakes- even if that means admitting guilt, with an apology (of course)- is the only way to play the game. #CrisisPR”]Remember that and there’s every chance memories of whatever the story was will be fast to fade. Forget this, and we could be looking at game, set, match, with you as the loser.