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Reputation Management: Athletes Facing Controversy

Kobe Bryant pointing(This is a guest article by Wesley Mallette)

Athletes in trouble. We see it every day in the news and find ourselves wondering aloud, “Wow. Did they really just say/do that?”

The vast majority of athletes will face a crisis of some proportion during their career or post-career. How they handle it is everything, and who manages them through it plays a major factor in the outcome, hence the need for true strategic communications professionals (i.e., seasoned PR people) on their team of advisors.

Too many athletes rely on less than qualified “handlers” to counsel them through the eye of the storm of controversy. They are foolish enough to follow the non-expert advice of, “We can handle this. Here’s what we’ll say/won’t say and this is what we’ll do. This will blow over.” Their reactions and responses will range from avoidance, vehement denial, finger pointing, and… the answer that is really not an option, “No comment.” Bad advice or no advice, we’ve seen it all too often and athletes are left wishing they could do it over again. Ask Tiger. Ask Roger Clemens. Ask Gilbert Arenas. Take your pick. There are hundreds of case studies in what NOT to do.

There are also those who’ve weathered the storm but in the process have lost endorsements, served suspensions, and dealt with significant damage to their reputations. But, they came back –and arguably, stronger than ever; Kobe Bryant, Ray Lewis, Michael Phelps, Charles Barkley, Jason Giambi, and Andy Pettite, among many others have all recovered.

So how do you overcome the white-hot spotlight of the media when you are in crisis? How do you eventually win back endorsement deals, fan approval, the media, and the court of public opinion?

The road through what I call “Reputation Rehab” is not easy. But it begins and ends with one thing – a sound and strategic communications plan. Do it right and you’re on the road to recovery faster. Get it wrong and you can kiss sponsorship deals, contract renewals, and post-career opportunities goodbye.

E-Mans av8pixAs an athlete, you understand preparation is key. You prepare for every game by studying film, practicing hard, attending meetings, developing the game plan, etc. The same must be done when it comes to managing your reputation. You start by having a solid communications strategy in place BEFORE you embark upon anything and everything you do. Here’s the key: your lawyer, agent, publicist, etc., cannot do this on his / her  own. They are not qualified. That strategy MUST be developed in conjunction with a true PR strategist, a person or team skilled in this arena.

Also, make sure you are properly (and consistently) media trained in how to handle both social and traditional media. As a public figure in the spotlight, you have to understand how to work with media and that everyone involved has a job to do.  With social media, you can avoid mistakes on a basic level by being responsible and thinking before you “tweet” or post a status update.

Build a significant bank of goodwill with the media, the public, and your fan base from the outset and do the right thing all the time. It will help tremendously when reputation or sponsorship damaging issues confront you.

When you are faced with controversy, huddle with your strategic communications and legal team immediately, lay out the clear message that everyone on your team will communicate, tweak your plan accordingly, and then go face the controversy head on. Own your level of responsibility, be accountable for your actions and be sincere. Your message must be consistent. You must be human, believable and real. If you can avoid it, do not have your agent or lawyer speaking on your 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.

Do not “spin.” Managing an athlete’s reputation in the court of public opinion is not about “spin.”

When you spin you don’t win.

Save that for the politicians and their scandals. We’re talking sports here and in this world it’s about accountability, ownership, telling your story and making sure the story is balanced. When you’re honest – no matter how painful – you have a much better chance of getting your key stakeholders to stand by you and forgive you. When you run, hide or lie, it’s over. The speed of the recovery depends on the strategic communications plan put in place and how well it is executed. An experienced team of PR pros and a sound communications strategy is your best bet.

Success in sports is achieved through solid game planning. The same holds true when it comes to managing your reputation and image. Prepare, plan and execute. Your long-term career depends on it.


Wesley MalletteWesley Mallette is Co-Founder and CEO of Comment Communications (formerly known as Elevation Sports & Entertainment) a strategic communications firm specializing in media training, crisis communications and broadcast training for athletes and sports executives.  A former Division I football player and decathlete, Mallette has led communications efforts for some of the world’s finest brands including MTV Networks, Black Entertainment Television, and Limited Brands, Inc. (Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works).   For more information about Mallette and Comment Communications, please visit here.

Image by Aaron Frutman

Image by E-mans av8pix

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7 Responses to Reputation Management: Athletes Facing Controversy

  1. Peter V Amador February 23, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    Wesley- I agree with you assertion that a PR professional should be retained by a superstar athlete that is in the midst of a public controversy. You argue convincingly for their inclusion in strategic meetings. True strategic accomplishments can only be achieved when multiple experts are involved in the decision making process. The rehabilitation of Kobe Bryant’s image has been one that has been carefully executed, and one that has required him to share more of himself with the media and his fans. By sharing more of himself he has regained the credibility which he lost.
    Strength, courage, and passion are traits that we admire in our athletes. They should be characteristics of any “Reputation Rehab”. Thank you for sharing!

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