Crisis Communications Planning Essential for High-Profile Athletes

No professional athlete is immune to the need for crisis communications planning. Just ask Tiger Woods, Ben Rothlisberger, Michael Phelps, Michael Vick, or Kobe Bryant, to name a few.  No matter how perfect everything may seem on the surface, our TMZ-obsessed society will find the dirt. As the saying goes, it takes years to build a reputation, but only takes a few minutes to destroy it.

When a crisis hits an athlete, his world is turned upside down. There is usually little time to waste. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, a crisis can snowball into a full-blown scandal, lost sponsorship dollars, and a ruined career almost overnight. When it happens a personal dream team is capable of moving fast to get ahead of the situation. His agent, lawyer, and strategic PR professional should all be on board and on the same page to get the athlete safely to the other side…

Playing to strengths, the athlete’s crisis team is a formidable force. The agent is usually the first to know and is the one who mobilizes the team to start damage control immediately and protect his client’s interests.  Next, attorneys assess the legal implications and begin formulating the appropriate action plan.  But very soon – and the sooner the better, the athlete has to respond, which means facing the media, facing his fans and tackling the crisis head-on.

Preparing an athlete to face the cameras, developing his message, laying out a strategy for communicating with the media, the fans, and sponsors, and giving the athlete the confidence he needs to do it all effectively is where the strategic communications team delivers the goods.

We all know that hearing about how sorry an athlete is or how much he or she regrets what happened does not sound sincere nor is it believable when it does not come from the athlete directly. Nobody is buying it when a superstar’s lawyer or agent gives a “heartfelt apology” for his client. Preparing the athlete to address the media directly on all subjects big and small is almost always the best strategy.

The key to avoiding total disaster lies in preparation. A crisis plan.

While you’d like to think some athletes are an exception, every professional athlete needs a crisis plan, and it should be a team effort — agent, lawyer, and PR pro all need to weigh in and determine the plan of attack.  But the PR Pro can take key steps early on, before a crisis hits, to ensure there is a clear protocol in place.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to prepare an athlete for a crisis before it hits. Yes, that means planning for something that hasn’t happened yet and may never happen. The point is, be ready.

  • Assess The Risk. In order to anticipate issues that may arise down the road, you have to know what you’re working with.  And while your clients may not want to tell you about all the skeletons in their closet, it’s critical to help them understand that agent, attorney and PR team should know about anything that could come back to haunt them one day.  If there are no surprises, the team will never be caught off guard and can respond better if crisis hits.
  • Create An Action Plan from Day One. While you may not always be able to anticipate a specific crisis, you can clearly define what the procedures and protocol will be if and when a situation hits: the lines of communication, who the designated spokespeople will be, how you will communicate with the media (statement release or press conference, which media outlets will get the story first, etc).
  • Build a Significant Bank of Goodwill. Working with your client to build relationships with the media, the public, and their fan base from the outset will help tremendously when reputation or sponsorship damaging issues confront an athlete. People tend to be a more compassionate and forgiving when the person in question is someone they like or in the media’s case, someone they’ve built a working relationship with.

What To Do When Crisis Hits:

In the nonstop news cycle and with the viral power of social media, response time is critical. This is when the pre-planned protocol comes into effect. If it’s been clearly outlined, the athlete knows exactly who to call when a crisis occurs and is ready to go. The team huddles lay out the strategy and the athlete goes out to face the controversy head-on:

  • Own up: The athlete needs to own their level of responsibility, be accountable for their actions and be sincere. The message must be consistent. The athlete must be human, believable and real.
  • Don’t Delegate: If it’s not legally necessary, do not have the agent or lawyer speaking on the athlete’s behalf. It’s not authentic, it’s not believable, and you will start to quickly see the court of public opinion swing in the wrong direction.
  • Be Direct: Do not “spin.” Managing reputations in the court of public opinion is not about “spin” and deceit.  When you spin you don’t win.
  • Be Honest: Encourage your clients to be as honest as possible – when they are honest – no matter how painful – they’ll have a much better chance of getting the key stakeholders to stand by them and forgive them. When they run, hide or lie, it’s over.

Confidentiality, strategic thinking, remaining behind the scenes, and maintaining a low profile while counseling and keeping your clients on track is what agents, attorneys, and PR strategists do.  At the end of it all, we make our clients look good – no matter what the situation — and give them the tools they need to be successful off the playing field.

Success in sports is achieved through solid game planning and players who can execute. The same holds true when it comes to crisis and reputation management. Prepare, plan and execute.

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