Olympic events take place on world’s biggest stages. That means for all of the beautiful moments of sportsmanship (and there are many), there is the potential for athletes to face public relations issues, including full-blown crisis, taking the attention away from what they (and their teammates and sponsors) are there for: the competition.
We’ve seen it all this summer: from the Russian doping scandal, to Lilly King’s already-legendary sparring with Russia’s Yulia Efimova, to Mark Cavendish’s crash, to the ever-emerging Ryan Lochte saga, the types of issues athletes can contend with runs the gamut.
What’s more, athletes are always on stage and they carry a tremendous amount of responsibility by representing not only themselves but also their sponsors (and their sponsor’s customers), their sport, their teams and their countries, which means they have much to lose when things go awry.
The process of overcoming difficult circumstances to ultimately succeed is a natural one for competitors: they know better than anyone how to improve, push themselves, and prepare for battle with the fiercest of opponents.
I believe that athletes can apply those same skills to handle public relations issues. To survive a scandal, athletes must be transparent, sincere, take responsibility for their actions and communicate with messages that will reach and resonate with all of their various audiences, from fans to the media to the brands that pay them (and the consumers of those brands). Thus athletes and the organizations associated with them must always have a crisis communications playbook at the ready. Following are some key plays:
1. Have a plan, have a team. All athletes—and the brands associated with them—need to have a plan in place that looks at potential scenarios and vulnerabilities. While it’s impossible to anticipate every possible crisis situation, having a plan in place and a team that can help navigate the most complicated scenarios is the key to being able to react quickly and effectively. That team should include both legal and communications professionals.
2. Tell the truth. Athletes must tell the truth, take responsibility where warranted, be accountable for their actions and be sincere in their communications. The world is watching, and that world includes their sponsors and their sponsors’ customers, along with fans, teams, home nations and more. Remember that the truth will always come out, so it is imperative to own the story from the beginning and to be honest, sincere and accountable. People will be forgiving, but not if they feel they’ve been lied to or misled.
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