Revolutionary Measures

Sharapova, drugs and public relations

Maria Sharapova hitting backhand, Fed Cup matc...

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.

March 16, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sport – the dirtiest business of all?

In an age of social media and always-on news, every brand can feel that it is constantly under attack, even if it is for what seems like trivial reasons. Surly barista serve you coffee? Unclean hotel room? Consumers can share their thoughts and views with the world in seconds, and quite often the resulting viral storm will be intense, but fade as quickly as it came into being.

English: panoramic shot of the olympic stadium...

In contrast, the world of sport, or more specifically its administration, is facing an unprecedented attack from both media and the public. FIFA has now been joined in the dock by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with senior figures alleged to have taken bribes to ensure that failed drugs tests never saw the light of day. A report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) points the finger at doping on a massive scale by Russian athletes, implicating senior figures in its government, while French prosecutors have arrested Lamine Diack, the ex-head of the IAAF, who is accused of receiving bribes of over €1 million to cover up failed tests. And it isn’t that long ago that the International Olympic Committee (IoC) had to confess that cities had ‘bought’ the right to host the games, while the close links between the then senior leadership at cycling’s governing body the UCI and drug cheat Lance Armstrong have also been highlighted.

On the outside it seems like all these organisations have a culture where too much power and a sense of entitlement mix with control over major decisions that have big political or financial impacts. As the head of UK Athletics pointed out, the leader of the IAAF is referred to as Mr President, inflating the holder’s ego as a matter of course.

Essentially sports administrators are in the spotlight, and need to rebuild their credibility. I’d see five areas to focus on:

1.Look wider for staff
Administrators seem to be either ex-athletes, those that have served their time in country federations or people attracted by the glamour of working for sporting organisations. Often promotion relies on who you know, rather than how good you are at your job. It is time to change this by recruiting capable figures from outside sport to lead administrations. They obviously need to know about the sport they are leading, and have an enthusiasm for it, but they don’t necessarily have to have spent their life in it. By bringing in outside managers, with the right skills (and no links of patronage), it will send a clear message that administrations want to change.

2.End culture of entitlement
The IoC is widely seen to have cleaned up its act, yet its bureaucrats still expect the world to revolve around them. The sell-out London Olympics saw gaps in the venues as “members of the Olympic family” decided not to bother going to certain events, while one of the reasons that Norway pulled out of bidding for the next Winter Olympics were demands for free booze for bureaucrats at the stadium and a cocktail party with the King. No one is against hard-working administrators having access to events as part of their roles, but it should be a privilege, not a right.

3.Transparency
I’ve said it before about voting for the World Cup, but every major decision being taken needs to be transparent and auditable. So no secret ballots – the results of who voted for who should be public at the time and open to the widest possible constituency to avoid any allegations of impropriety. All activities, particularly those involving potentially controversial subjects such as drug testing and financial matters, should be audited independently by consultancies that actually understand them, rather than treating the whole thing as a tick box exercise. The same applies to new hires, who should have to declare any business interests to links to particular countries/teams/companies.

4.Move offices
The IAAF probably has strong tax reasons for being based in Monaco, while FIFA and the UCI (amongst others) have headquarters in neutral, but secretive, Switzerland. At a time when credibility is tenuous, location matters, so associations need to look at moving to more ‘normal’ jurisdictions where they can be subject to proper scrutiny. It should also help with recruiting from a wider talent pool.

5.Be more independent from political control
As the Russian doping scandal (and winning Russian bid for the World Cup) both show, it is easy for administrations to become subject to outside political influences. This is true not just in Russia, but other countries where sport is seen as a tool of soft power, irrespective of the rules. Therefore all local administrations need to be independent of government, without members of ruling families or parties running them to avoid any allegations of bias.

Sport has the ability to bring people around the world together – a fact that administrators and their marketers are always reminding us of. This cuts both ways – not only do fans join together to salute outstanding athletic achievements, but they can equally unite to condemn the administrators that are destroying the sports that they love.

November 11, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments