Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.
So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.
However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:
1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.
2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.
As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:
- Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
- Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
- At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.
What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.
The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.
For many media watchers the last week has felt like a watershed moment. The Independent announced that it will end its print edition in March, making it the first national newspaper to go online only. At the same time, youth channel BBC3 has come off the airwaves and moved solely to be web-based.
So, is the end of old media as we know it and will other channels and papers follow? And, by extension, does it mean that PR people will have to change how they work as media relations becomes less important with consumers getting their news in other ways, for example through citizen journalism and sites such as Buzzfeed?
Answering those questions in turn, old media isn’t dead, but isn’t healthy either. The Independent was always the smallest of the national newspapers when it came to circulation and therefore the weakest when subjected to the twin pressures of online and free papers such as Metro. Indeed it was comprehensively outsold by its cut-price sibling, the i, which will remain in print and is being sold to publisher Johnston Press.
Running a print operation has a large, fixed cost that every national newspaper is struggling with – witness The Guardian’s announcement that it will cut staff. Despite what might be said about BBC3 going where the audience is (online), this is only partially true – the real reason is about reducing costs for the BBC, although whether it will achieve its planned savings is a moot point.
Plenty of titles have gone online only, while yet more are now monthly or quarterly rather than weekly. Others have successfully embraced paywalls (The Economist, The Financial Times to name but two) to stabilise and protect their revenues. The online world does call for new business models as offline advertising pounds are swapped for digital pence, and there will be further casualties in the future.
However, this is not the end of media relations that my erstwhile colleague Stephen Waddington predicts in his blog. He believes that if your role in public relations is pitching stories to journalists, the clock is ticking and you have 15-20 years maximum before you are no longer necessary. I’d agree that anyone who solely spends their time ringing up/emailing national newspaper journalists, trying to interest them all in the same story without using any differentiation or intelligence is not going to survive long.
But I don’t think most (successful) PR people are stuck in that pigeonhole. Over the course of my 20+ year career I’ve seen the move online and the corresponding drop in the number of journalists as costs were cut. At the same time the amount of straight media relations I’m doing has dropped dramatically. More often, it is about coming up with a specific story to meet the title’s needs or pitching an idea for an article and then creating it with the client. Much more revolves around content and sharing it on social media in order to build both thought leadership and SEO for clients in their specific B2B markets.
This can be much harder than simply ringing every journalist on a list and pitching the same story, but the rewards for PR are far, far greater. It embeds the profession deeper into the marketing department and links to outcomes that are based on business value, rather than a bulging book of coverage that looks impressive, but is not measurable.
Is what I do media relations? I’d say that if it involves speaking to a publication in order to gain coverage, without money changing hands, then it is media relations – and I can’t see that going away anytime soon. After all the online-only Independent will still have journalists, just fewer of them, and they will still be writing stories that companies want to be part of. Commoditised media relations may be dying, but true media relations that aims to build links between journalists and clients is as vital as ever.
The last week has seen two big stories in the world of PR, both of which I think are linked to issues the profession has in getting it across what it does – and what it cannot or should not try to achieve.
Firstly, the Vatican is rethinking its communications strategy, both to deal with the 24 hour global media cycle, and to better support the straightforward and down to earth style of Pope Francis. Given that the Holy See’s press office is understaffed and shuts every day at 3pm GMT you can see why changes are needed. Otherwise the risk is that the messages that Pope Francis wishes to get out will be undermined by lack of the right structure and mechanism to interact with the press.
The second, and much more high profile (on Twitter at least), is the case of HP Enterprise and the Financial Times. After FT columnist Lucy Kellaway included remarks made by HPE’s boss, Meg Whitman, in a piece that poked fun at foolish things said by leaders the World Economic Forum, Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at the company, sent an aggressive response. This ended with a direct threat “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.”
Rather than put up with this attack on her (and the FT’s) journalistic independence from advertisers, Kellaway went public with the exchange, to widespread support from both journalists and PR people. HPE made the situation worse by denying Gomez’s letter was aggressive and then releasing it. A quick read shows that it was exactly as described by Kellaway – aggressive and threatening. Hardly bridge building with the journalistic community.
What links these stories? In both cases the PR function is not doing its job. The Vatican is not providing the basic support that its boss/chief spokesperson (The Pope) requires, and HP Enterprises has gone to the other extreme by seeming to pander to the ego of its boss, who seems to have been upset by a tongue in cheek comment.
What seems to be missing is an understanding of what PR can, and can’t do. So, with particular emphasis on Mr Gomez, here’s a list of 5 points to bear in mind:
1 PR is not advertising
In PR you don’t pay money and therefore nothing is guaranteed. However the flip side is that your message is amplified by a trusted, independent third party (the media), making it much more powerful.
2 Not everything written about you will be positive
Particularly if you are a large global corporation not all stories will turn out the way you’d like them. Even if you prepare in detail there’s still the chance that your messages will be mangled or ignored in favour of a better story. Take the rough with the smooth, don’t be thin-skinned, and move on. If you want to hold a grudge, don’t do it publicly.
3 Complaining won’t help, it will make things worse
In the days of print, once something was published it was there in black and white and couldn’t be changed. On the positive side newspapers and magazines have a finite shelf life, meaning today’s front page story is tomorrow’s chip wrapper. Online, things are different. They are there forever (unless you can get Google to remove them from search results), but can be amended, updated and changed. I’ve asked journalists to correct stories online that were factually inaccurate – a particular favourite is when a reporter got the sex of a spokesperson wrong (after meeting her!). But there’s no way that you can expect any publication to remove or amend a piece that meets its own journalistic guidelines. As HPE is finding, complaining and threatening is just digging a deeper hole for yourself.
4 PR should be a critical friend
Communication departments need to reflect and support the business/religious organisation that employs them. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of common sense and what will actually work with the media, and other audiences. Be realistic in your aims, and if a PR person thinks a strategy won’t work they need to have the guts to tell their CEO why it won’t fly. PR people should think like a journalist – what is the story, why is it interesting and how can I get it across. Lots of agencies now employ ex-journalists, and as my colleague Chris Lee points out, there are a multiple benefits in doing so.
5 Journalism is independent
Despite living in an era of native advertising, advertorials and blurred lines between paid and earned content, companies need to remember that quality journalism is independent. So threatening to remove advertising pounds should have no impact – and doing so would be counterproductive on a number of levels. After all, as Lucy Kellaway pointed out, if the FT is the best way for HPE to reach its target audiences, then pulling ads from the publication will undermine its overall marketing programme.
What the HPE debacle shows is that it is time for PR to better communicate to stakeholders what it is we do, be robust, and think independently, rather than just believing that the CEO is untouchable. If he wants a role with an all-powerful leader, then perhaps Mr Gomez should apply to the Vatican – I believe they are recruiting…………..
We live in challenging, complex times. Globalisation, wars, mass migration, terrorism and the sheer pace of technology change all combine to unsettle and worry large percentages of the population, both in the UK and across the world.
In suspicious eras such as these, trust in institutions and organisations is vital if people are to be reassured and helped to understand how change is affecting them. So the headline finding of the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer – that levels of trust in UK government, media, business and NGOs have all risen – should be a reason for celebration. The Edelman study, now in its 16th year, surveyed 2,500 members of the public in the UK as part of a global sample of 33,000 people.
However, behind the headline figures there are two main causes of concern for those of us involved in communications.
1. Below average national trust
While the UK’s trust levels are at their highest since the recession (excepting in the case of NGOs), the country’s combined, cross-index score of 40% means it ranks amongst the ‘distrusters’, along with most of Western Europe, the US and Australia. The Chinese say they have the most trust in institutions (71%), followed by citizens of the United Arab Emirates (65%), and India, Indonesia and Singapore (all 62%). The global average is 48%.
The UK’s relatively low ranking is probably not a surprise. After all, we pride ourselves on taking a cynical attitude to the institutions around us, and this adds a level of public and media scrutiny that supposedly keeps politicians and business on their toes. Negative headlines sell papers, reflecting the national psyche and appetite for bad news. However, it also means that PR people, and other marketers, need to work harder to convince the general public that, actually, things aren’t that bad for the vast majority, particularly compared to many other places around the globe.
2. The trust gap
The biggest worry is the widening gap between the haves and have nots when it comes to belief in institutions. Edelman divided its sample into the ‘informed public’ (those with a household income in the top 25%, typically with university degrees), and the general public. Overall the gap between these groups in the index hit 17%, up from 9% last year, with the informed public trusting government, business, the media and NGOs much more than the rest of the population.
In many ways this isn’t unexpected – it is much easier to be happier with your lot if you have a cushion of money and education to fall back on. And the recession has seen widening inequality – figures released by Oxfam show that the richest 62 people in the world held the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population in 2015, equivalent to some 3.6bn people. Working a zero hours contract for a company that allegedly shifts its profits offshore to avoid tax is going to provide a radically different perspective to someone who is a manager in the same organisation.
But the big concern is the impact of this lack of trust. The rise of Donald Trump in the US, and the fact that Poles (the least trusting population at 34%) have just elected an ultra-conservative government that promptly replaced the heads of public broadcasters, shows the consequences of the rift between citizens and public institutions. In the UK this suspicion is evident on the forthcoming EU referendum – 61% of the informed public back Britain remaining, with 26% wanting to leave. In contrast nearly half (47%) of low earners favour leaving, and just 34% believe the UK should stay in.
The consequences of the trust gap are therefore potentially extremely worrying, with populists exploiting public fears to increase their share of the vote and shift the debate rightwards in many cases. It is up to communicators of every sort (whether working for government, business or NGOs) to address this gap, and look to educate the general population, both that current change is bringing positive benefits, and that issues can’t be solved through kneejerk reactions, such as building a wall between the US and Mexico. It won’t be easy as in many cases the devil has the best tunes, but it is vital if informed democracy and real debate are to flourish.
The last five years has seen two, separate trends hit marketing. Firstly the use of technology has skyrocketed as digital channels such as the internet, email and social media have risen in importance. Secondly, marketing has increased in importance as businesses across every sector realise that it is central to winning and retaining customers, reaching stakeholders and engaging with external audiences.
At the risk of showing how old I am, it is worth comparing the tools I had in my first PR job twenty something years ago, and what I have now. I started with a computer (yay!), and it even had email – but that was purely internal to the ten person company I worked for. I could just about access the internet, but it was text based, rather than the colourful World Wide Web we know today. If I wanted to communicate with a journalist I looked them up in a paper-based directory and called them. If I needed to give them information I wrote them a letter, printed and posted it. The same applied to press releases, which were faxed over by clients, laboriously re-typed, faxed back to the client for checking and then sent to a mailing house for distribution. Press clippings were sent through the post by a monitoring agency, and I then stuck them on large boards to show to clients or made up physical cuttings books. And I worked for a technology PR agency, so at the advanced end of marketing at the time.
Now marketers have access to a huge variety of online tools and devices. You can find out information instantly about a journalist through the web and send out a press release to the whole world at the touch of a button through mailing software – not to be advised unless you want to get a reputation as a spammer. Email and social media have replaced the telephone as primary communication channels, while digital marketing technology is available to run campaigns from start to finish. You can target audiences based on what they have searched for, what they have talked about on social media or simply the pages they’ve visited online. Marketing has gone from being behind the curve on technology use to being one of the most active spenders on IT. Much of this has been driven by the move to digital, with a corresponding rise in status for marketing chiefs. Rather than Marketing Directors, often reporting to sales, more and more organisations now have Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), with a seat on the board and budgets to match.
In 2011, Gartner predicted that the CMO will spend more on tech by 2017 than the Chief Information Officer (CIO). People scoffed at the time, but it looks like this is well on the way to becoming a reality. There are now more than 3,000 marketing technology vendors, all aiming to support agencies and in-house marketers in their roles. This frankly dizzying Tube map-style infographic tries to make sense of their relative positioning, but was probably out of date as soon as it was released, such is the rate of growth and innovation.
I’ve longed argued that marketers in general, and PR people in particular, need to change and embrace technology if they want to continue to be relevant. However they shouldn’t just focus on technology for its own sake, but use it to support what they do – engaging with customers and creating long-term relationships that benefit both sides. There’s no point running an award-winning Facebook page if it doesn’t link to your marketing and business objectives and is measured solely by the number of Likes it delivers.
So I’m suspicious of the latest marketing trend – the introduction of the Chief Marketing Technology Officer (CMTO). It aims to bridge the gaps between stereotypically creative marketing people and the more conservative, risk-averse IT department, finding a middle ground so that marketers don’t make the wrong choices, but aren’t held back by out of date IT procurement practices. Despite its spread in the US – Gartner says that 80% of organisations have someone filling a CMTO-type role, even if it isn’t called that, I don’t believe that marketing (or IT) needs one. It is surely better to get both marketing and IT to talk to each other, and learn how to co-operate, than to essentially try and create a half-way house of someone with the range of skills to talk both tech and marketing. If the CMTO sits in marketing you just end up with a silo-based, departmental approach, rather than looking at the wider picture of what the business needs. Technology is a vital part of every department’s role, but that doesn’t mean it is good for them to operate in isolation. Marketers should continue to improve their tech knowledge, but actually use their communication skills to talk to IT and get their help in navigating the marketing tech maze. Otherwise the risk is that money is wasted and the whole business suffers.