At the sharp end with Sharapova

An article by Alder Media PR

Earlier this month, tennis star Maria Sharapova appeared to seize the initiative and revealed she had failed a drug test.

Sharapova, the world’s highest-earning female athlete, is well known for having a business head, managing a portfolio of prestigious sponsorships that were – before her announcement – worth more than $20m.

Big sports stars are big business and the stakes are high.

The former Wimbledon champion enjoyed lucrative relationships with global brands like Danone, Tag Heuer and Avon. In 2014 she became brand ambassador for Porsche in a three-year deal.

But even as the story was being uploaded and re-tweeted around the world, the sponsors acted.

Potential sponsors who had been in discussion with Sharapova recoiled, their public statements heavy with euphemism.

The tennis player’s announcement was, however, an example of self-possessed, text-book handling of a reputational crisis in the first, revelatory phase.

Commentators were quick to note she would have been under no illusion about what is at stake. The long-term success of team Sharapova’s strategy will pivot on whether it proves to have been based entirely in fact. The credibility of the case is an issue I will set aside for the purposes of this article.

The Financial Times reported her agent, Max Eisenbud, as saying: “She is very savvy, she is a very smart businesswoman – and she understands return on investment.”

It appears she knows a bit about crisis handling, too. Any suggestion of a sports star cheating is as toxic as it gets. So let’s take a closer look at her approach.

The press conference

Sharapova’s choice of calling a press conference was a canny one.

She knew journalists would not be particularly surprised to be invited – she has held many.

She also knew rumours would be triggered ahead of it, thus guaranteeing maximum exposure. The night before, Associated Press reported her agent would only say it was ‘a major announcement’. AP added: “…there has been speculation that Sharapova – who has been troubled by injury – may announce she will take time off for surgery or even retire.”

The announcement

The delivery was clear and to the point, with Sharapova owning responsibility from the outset: “I did fail the test and I take full responsibility for it,” she made sure to say.

She claimed the drug was prescribed by her family doctor, following up with the mitigation likely to be central to her chances of any reputational recovery: “It is very important for you to understand that this medicine was not on WADA’s [World Anti-Doping Agency] banned list, and I had legally been taking the medicine for the past ten years.

“But on January 1st the rules had changed and Meldonium became a prohibited substance, which I had not known.”

This was a carefully crafted statement that contains plenty of strong quotes with a human tone for journalists to use, albeit there will be many who question the credibility of the plea of ignorance.

In making it, Sharapova spoke directly to the journalists: “I thought it was very important for me to come out and speak about this in front of all of you because through my long career I have been very open and honest about many things…”

She repeatedly returned to the core message – expressing regret and acknowledging the potential impact: “I made a huge mistake. I have let my fans down, and let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four, that I love so deeply.”

Before taking questions – reporters don’t like a no-questions press conference –  she found time for some humour: “If I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet…”

Can she pull it off?

Pundits and leading figures in world tennis are divided about what this means for the sport and Sharapova’s future, and it is likely more facts will emerge. But it is reasonable to conclude the first phase of the crisis was deftly managed – and at least she has not faced universal condemnation thus far.

The situation is dynamic, and coverage quickly broadened to discuss the wider issues, perhaps the least-bad result for the tennis player, in PR terms.

There will certainly be further questions about Sharapova’s use of Meldonium. Much will depend on whether she is able to secure a Therapeutic Use Exemption, which allows an athlete to take a banned substance if they have a proven medical condition that requires it.

Sharapova is nearing the end of her career, and some of her sponsors will have already been eyeing the next generation, so perhaps the main aim here is protecting her legacy in the long term.

Time will tell. This episode demonstrates the value of taking control of the situation as soon as possible and getting in first as soon as you know something negative is on the way. 

Author: Anthony Longden, Consultant, Alder Media

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This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Steffan Groch

Partner and Head of Regulatory - Head of Sectors

I head up DWF's national Regulatory team as well as leading the firm’s ‘go to market’ sector expertise. I am also Chair of the UK Health and Safety Lawyers Association.