From a PR perspective the not so fallen tennis ace Maria Sharapova has come out on the front foot after being notified through a letter that she had taken a banned substance. As history has shown us that sporting icons and illegal drug use tends to cast doubts over successful careers, damage to reputations and a lifetime of denials.
However in this case Sharapova used the opportunity to control the narrative and set the tone to a story which could have had severe consequences to a glittering career. She played a straight bat and informed the world that she was tested positive for meldonium, a substance she has been taking since 2006 for health issues. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) said the five-time Grand Slam champion would be provisionally suspended from 12 March.
With previous sporting drug scandals, you tend to find programmes, discussions and debate to why this took place in the first place. But the darling of tennis used this opportunity to humanise her story by stating she ‘was open and honest about a lot if things,” while she stressed she let people down and would face consequences. Sharapova also put the ball into the court of the tennis authorities in relation to the length of the ban by admitting she made a mistake Her PR operation in controlling the message which to a great degree was damaging had in fact taken the sting out of the tail.
The press conference and admission of guilt over a subject which automatically can bring condemnation and isolation from peers and the public, one only needs to study the fallout when Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones were found to have taken illegal substances.
Sharapova humanised the possible scandal by admitting what she had done herself. In PR and crisis communications that usually is far more effective than hiding behind a bland statement or using a spokesperson for that matter, as it can come across there is more to hide, and hence the media probing begins. By not issuing a carefully written statement but speaking from the heart and then taking questions from the floor, Sharapova delivered an ace in wrestling control of the narrative rather than passively waiting for the news to leak.
To a certain degree PR strategies of an admission of guilt through the human perspective can vindicate the person, bring sympathy and above all control the narrative and messaging which is often lost if others leak the story which forces the person to react.
Her PR strategy worked as the reaction has been hugely sympathetic as rivals like Serena Williams responded by saying Sharapova had showed “a lot of courage” for accepting responsibility for her failed drugs test. While he former coach Nick Bollettieri said the Russian’s test was a “game-changer for life, not just for tennis”.
The 84-year-old American told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was shocked former world number one Sharapova tested positive because “she has always been above board in everything,”no doubt his comments also fitted the Sharapova narrative as well, as when others sympathise rather than condemn it makes a huge difference to brand perception. Also it does help being the pin-up girl of tennis, no doubt that worked to her advantage.
Taking the PR offensive of admission now means she probably will expect a short ban. her peers, the world of tennis and her fans will not judge as a cheat but as an irresponsible athlete who should have read the label before taking the medication. she will now no doubt enter a period of reflection with some carefully managed interviews on the way which will pave way for a comeback tour which will bring her millions of more dollars in endorsements and sponsorships. No doubt Nike who suspended her contract worth $70m (£49m) will no doubt re-unite and recover the lost revenue when things become clear.
And finally expect a retirement announcement which will be on Sharapova’s terms and will not be announced in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with a fairly ugly carpet.