5 key steps to help protect sports-stars from reputational damage

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Monday, 13 October 2014

Sportsmen and sportswomen have always been a central part of our culture and it is often said that Britain invented some of the most popular sporting events today, followed by millions across the globe. 

You only have to look at the 2014 World Cup final which attracted almost one billion viewers, eclipsing the 900 million people who watched the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The kind of interest and scrutiny we apply to these events is the same as that we apply to the individuals who make up these wonderful spectacles.

Today the global media village and the astronomical wages that some of our best known sports personalities command mean that they attract a celebrity status which extends far beyond their sporting endeavours and into their private lives. We now have sporting individuals who themselves are highly successful brands – take brand Beckham for example – and who are able to exploit their image rights, creating lucrative parallel businesses for them.


How to stop an issue becoming a full-blown crisis

For those advising our modern day sporting figures, including lawyers, it is important to have an acute awareness of how reputational damage can impact sportsmen and women with profound and enduring negative effects. A scandalous story, or online rumour, may not only ruin their reputation but also seriously damage their business concerns as they become tarnished in the eye of the public.

Sports lawyers are often the first port of call when their clients face reputational issues, accompanied by intrusive media interest or the likelihood of it. It is therefore important to have an understanding of how the media operates in these situations and what some of the rules of engagement are. Below are the principle steps for early mitigation:

1. Act when an issue becomes known

The important thing is to act quickly, but not in haste. It is vital to understand the scale and cause of the problem and its potential to move from issue into crisis. At the issue stage there is an opportunity to deal with problems through decisive action, thereby preventing escalation. An issue is much easier to manage, from a media interest perspective, than a crisis which unless checked can quickly get out of control.

2. Engage with the media

The first thing to do when contacted by the press is to buy time so that any response is made following a period of consideration. Often there is too little thinking done before communicating, which leads to damaging headlines and the forming of wrong impressions. In practical terms it means getting an understanding of what the journalist wants and then agreeing to come back to him/her on specific points within an agreed timeframe. It is at this stage that specialist PR professionals, who are effective in such situations, are often enlisted to help.

3. Set protocols

Journalists are very clever at approaching stories from various angles, contacting more than one potential source when gathering information. It is best to have a single point of contact and to ensure that a protocol is in place to ensure this. When it is known that the press are interested in a story, those who may be contacted should be aware not to comment and to refer the journalist to a central spokesperson.

4. Explore legal options

Sadly, journalists can get their facts wrong and pursue an agenda that is unhelpful and potentially damaging. This is when you may consider enlisting the support of specialist media lawyers, who will advise on the options available in such situations. These include corresponding with the publication’s in-house legal advisers (which often injects a sense of reality into any subsequent article) through to obtaining an injunction in more serious cases. It makes sense to be aware of what legal resources are available in the circumstances. A pincer-like approach from media lawyer and PR professional can be particularly effective in dissuading inaccurate and damaging reporting.

5. Reputation re-build

If the story that is eventually published is particularly damaging, then reputation re-build becomes a priority. This usually involves a programme that takes some time to execute and deliver benefits: the saying that a reputation ‘takes years to earn and seconds to lose’ is very true. Reputation re-build is about re-positioning the client, carefully choosing opportunities and topics that will re-establish trust and standing in the eye of the public.


Always remember…

Sportspeople, like many of us, do from time to time find themselves in situations that have the potential to seriously affect their reputation. But with good advisors, who understand the importance of containment at an early stage, these events need not be devastatingly damaging. The key is to recognise issues as soon as they arise, take decisive action and stop them from developing into full-blown crises.

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