The Sharapova Response: Well Served Crisis PR

by Scott Douglas

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

When a rule change served up an unfortunate situation, great crisis PR won the day

Justin Smith image of Sharapova with text over, "Well served crisis comm"SOME people seem to have it all. Take Maria Sharapova. As if her glittering tennis career and athletic prowess weren’t enough, she is also blessed with movie star good looks and the kind of media profile most celebrities can only dream of.

Then a doping scandal threatened to derail her entire life, casting a shadow over her five Grand Slam titles, sending big money sponsors scattering and bringing the career of the world’s 11th ranked woman player to an abrupt and unceremonious halt.

Experience tells us this wouldn’t be pretty. When a star and media darling of her standing is found wanting the media fallout can last for months, with story after story coming out as journalists pick at the carcass of a once-proud career.

And yet, here we are just a few weeks on from Sharapova’s shock announcement that she was guilty of failing to test clear in a doping violation and barely anyone is talking about it. Sure, when the story first exploded it filled a few days of the news cycle, but then just as suddenly it fell of the news agenda.

Why? Because of a particularly skillful piece of crisis management PR which is already becoming known in PR circles as the Sharapova Response. And there are many lessons that businesses can take from the case.

There remain plenty of unanswered questions about how Sharapova – among many other Russian athletes – was still taking the medication meldonium, months after it was banned by the international tennis authorities. Which means the world’s richest and best known female sport star still has a very long way to go before her career can be said to be saved – or over.

However, her handling of the initial announcement last month has already gone down as an object lesson in crisis PR – off getting ahead of an inflammatory issue and working effectively to starve it of the oxygen of publicity as quickly and effectively as possible.

As one public relations commentator said in the industry’s “bible”, PR Week: “The tennis star’s forthrightness is a case study in proper reputation management. It’s a stunningly bold and mature handling of the crisis.”

There are a few basic rules to effective crisis management which can be summed up surprisingly easily:

  • Accept responsibility for any wrongdoing immediately
  • Acknowledge with empathy those affected or damaged by the issue
  • Explain what is being done to address the problem to allow everyone to move on

In reality this happens rarely. We are used to wrongdoers in sport, business, politics and many other walks of life pleading ignorance, or making “no comment” at worst, or partial and insincere apologies at best. In some cases they will even bring in lawyers to try defending their corner.

Such approaches rarely end well. Once the genie is out of the bottle it can’t be returned and there inevitably follows a drip-drip of further revelations, which give the media further stories – all the while making the person or business at the centre of the allegations look progressively worse.

The business world is littered with recent such examples at both local and international level – from the apparently never-ending media firestorm which engulfed Volkswagen, to the recent example of the wedding planner at Balgonie Castle in Fife who badmouthed brides-to-be.

What Sharapova did was take all of the oxygen out of the room. Sure, the doping revelations burned her badly, but the threat of a slow, smouldering fire being lit under her reputation was effectively extinguished.

She decided to face it head on and – against the advice of her lawyers – she announced a press conference to come clean. There was no chance of “No Comment” response or any chance of Sharapova taking cover and hoping it would blow over.

Instead, she came out and admitted that she had tested positive and gave a full and honest account of her situation, apologised to her fans and to the tennis authorities and said she would now await whatever punishment the tennis authorities deemed fitting.

There was nothing else for the media to drag out of it, there was nothing for them to reveal – they had it all in one, fell swoop. Even her arch rival Serena Williams came out and acknowledged the Russian had shown “a lot of courage” in her handling of the situation.

The result was that while sponsors could have terminated all contact, instead they have chosen simply to “suspend” relations until investigations are complete. Sharapova even gained an extension from one sponsor, racquet manufacturer Head, which was slammed by other Tennis stars. However, it meant the star was spared the complete abandonment which has befallen other sports stars caught up in doping.

Crisis Media AlarmCheck our out blog post on managing a crisis in a time of smartphones. Handling a crisis used to be a little easier; it’s now more difficult with the advent of smartphones and citizen journalism.



This is all down to her expert approach to the situation and it’s something we’d recommend. Where possible if a crisis presents itself follow these steps:

  • Find out what the issue is – get all the facts and information
  • Designate responsibility for media relations – nothing worse than not knowing who should take charge
  • Be up front and completely honest – best to get everything out in the open and reasoned

Not every business has the reputation or PR power of Maria Sharapova however. Here at Holyrood PR we’ve got a proven track record in managing crisis and that’s what you need – an experienced and steady guiding hand.

Your business deserves to work with Crisis PR experts who won’t make a drama out of a crisis

We’d be happy to discuss creating a crisis communications plan for your business. Like all of our PR services, the pricing is totally clear – in fact, we’re one of the most transparent agencies in the UK in terms of cost.

Simply phone us on 0131 561 2244 or fill in the simple form below and we’ll get straight back to you:

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Scott Douglas, of public relations agency Holyrood PR in Scotland

Scott Douglas

Scott Douglas is the co-founder of the multi award-winning Holyrood PR, renowned public relations agency in Edinburgh, Scotland.
As well as providing expert PR services in Scotland and the UK, the former journalist heads a team which offers a host of other professional media services.
Those include crisis management PR, photography for business PR, affordable business video, social media campaigns and strategic content planning and delivery for businesses of all sizes.

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