Inside Maria Sharapova’s crisis: How she volleyed through a doping scandal

As one of the world’s most prolific and successful athlete, to be found guilty for doping is one of the worst thing that can happen – especially when the drug you’re being tested positive for has only been banned months ago. In this case, Maria Sharapova was caught totally off-guard and found herself deep in a doping crisis.

As a huge fan, it devastated me that she might be banned for life for what seemed to be an honest mistake. However, more interestingly, as a professional PR Practitioner, it was more amazing to dissect how she managed this crisis with much class.

I share my thoughts with PR Daily:

Maria Sharapova captivated the world as a bright-eyed 17-year-old teenager when she defeated Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. Since then, Sharapova has crafted a reputation as one of the best, smartest, richest players in the sport.

Fast forward 12 years to the March, 2016 press conference where Sharapova shocked the world.

And the walls came tumbling down

“But on 1 January the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance, which I had not known. I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it. I made a huge mistake.”

Sharapova had failed a doping test and had been provisionally banned by the International Tennis Federation—a professional athlete’s worst nightmare.

PR pros take note of Sharapova’s master class in crisis management:

Key performance indicators of her crisis management:

1. The media and public have been over-exposed to pristinely crafted, politically correct messages. To win them over and elicit a sympathetic instead of an over-critical reaction, Sharapova took a unique tack: In her 7-minute press conference, she conveyed remorse and responsibility in what appeared to be an unscripted performance.

2. Sharapova placed the public and her fans at the forefront of her communication. Because she did this, she kept the crisis under control. Most important, beyond taking full responsibility, she provided details of her failed drug test. This allowed no room for the media to spin stories.

3. By taking firm control, she dictated the narrative and played to the strength of her integrity—while adding personal touches to appeal to the emotions and logic of her huge social media following.

The relentless media onslaught

This seems to be honest human error; undeniably, damage has been done to Sharapova’s image. Her brand of being a fighter and one of the most mentally tough in women’s tennis—did she save it?

Days after the surprising announcement, publications around the world ran stories asserting that Sharapova was warned 5 times about meldonium. These stories were pure speculation.

RELATED: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.

An athlete untrained in PR would have jumped into the “attack the accuser” trap, fighting the media’s unsubstantiated surmises, and a lawsuit might have loomed. But Sharapova executed a near-perfect response.

Providing a consistent flow of information

Almost 19 million followers on social media (15.5 million on Facebook) swiftly transformed into Sharapova’s vigilant advocates.

Her huge following and loyal fan base created hashtags in support of Sharapova (#IStandWithMariaand #LetMariaPlay) that trended on Facebook and Twitter. Sharapova took to Facebook and addressed her fans—her most important target audience—directly, to show her gratitude and the strength she gained from their support:

“In this moment, I am so proud to call you my fans. Within hours of my announcement, you showed me support and loyalty, which I could only expect to hear when someone would be at the top of their profession.”

The media tried to milk the story; big names like Jennifer Capriati slammed her online; Nike and Tag Heuer suspended their multi-million dollar sponsorship deals. Amid the commotion, Sharapova kept calm, took a step back, and collected ammunition.

Not giving the media the reaction they were hoping for worked superbly. First, no media outlet could find an opening for further stories. Second, it gave Sharapova the ability to steer the conversation in a way favorable to her.

When the media continued their relentless pursuit, she again took to Facebook to clear the air. Sharapova shot each falsification and distortion down by giving the facts, never once letting her emotions get in the way.

Jeffrey Wong is an account coordinator at The Hoffman Agency, Singapore.

This article originally ran on PR Daily.
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