It was quite a week of you’re into sports PR case studies. Or just into sports.
Sure, there’s that college conference basketball tournament thing. A few overtimes, buzzer-beaters and upsets are always good for a sport that seems to emerge from a regular season slumber at this time each year. [Note to those people: the regular season was pretty fun, too.]
My attention was also on sports off the court. The week began with Denver Broncos and decorated quarterback, Peyton Manning, calling it a career after 18 seasons. Later, tennis pro and marketing maven Maria Sharapova announced in a press conference that she’d tested positive for a banned substance.
The week ended with oft-troubled NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel officially released by the Cleveland Browns after public and legal issues.
When this timeline started, things were pretty cut-and-dried for me PR wise. I’ve seen and consulted positive and crisis situations, and I easily defined them after each event.
Manning could have been a pro
I thought Manning’s retirement press conference was more of a party, not unlike when other star athletes make final podium appearances. The only non feel-good question during the Manning affair occurred when Lindsay Jones from USA Today asked him about the continuing buzz of improprieties while he was a student-athlete at the University of Tennessee. (Afterward, Jones was chastised online from all corners for doing her job.)
The view from the PR platform
I am a publicist and help prepare people to answer possible incriminating questions. While I hope compromising questions aren’t asked, I know better. Reporters have jobs to do, and it’s mine to prepare my clients to answer them with humility and honesty. In my personal view, Manning fell short.
To be sure, Manning’s answer to Jones’ question may have been honest. There are conflicting reports about what happened in the Vols locker room with a female trainer years ago and only those who were on-site know the truth. (Accounts of who was in the training room vary.) The only reason he might care at this point is because he created a squeaky-clean brand and that is tarnished, if just an inch, with renewed attention toward events in 1996 and a book he and his father wrote in which they were highly critical of the alleged victim.
Manning would have been lauded for a smart and concise answer to Jones’ question during his retirement event, but he concluded it with a quote from fictional movie character Forrest Gump. As a woman — as a human that finds nothing funny about alleged sex abuse -– the comment was condescending and inappropriate. I don’t say that to be PC. I say that because it’s classless.
Manning may be one of the nicest, kindest individuals to walk the planet, and I respect those who say he is. However, the comment was misplaced, uncalled for and unfortunate. If I own a company that pays him to endorse my products, I cringed when I heard that. If he regrets the miscue, he hasn’t said so. There has been no apology and likely won’t be. Unfortunately, many like me will remember the blunder more than the adulation unless something is found to totally disprove sexual misconduct accusations.
Hours later in what many speculated would be a retirement announcement, the five-time Grand Slam event winner Sharapova said she failed a drug test at the Australian Open. She was rightly lauded for getting in front of the issue when she met the media herself instead of letting the news leak from anyone else. She said that she tested positive for a recently banned substance called meldonium, a Latvian-produced medication she took legally for 10 years.
I watched Sharapova’s presser on Tennis Channel and tweeted that I thought that hers was the ideal case study in how to handle a crisis at the outset. Too many deny or hide, which only makes a controversy grow.
Today there are questions as to whether Sharapova did in fact take advantage of a medication that until January 1, 2016 had been legal according to the World Anti-Doping Agency but known to have energy producing effects. Regardless, if I were her PR representative, I would have advised her to do the very thing she did. She revealed the results of the failed test, explained she took it for health reasons and blamed only herself for not knowing the med was added to the WADA list of banned substances.
While the 29-year-old Sharapova did what she should PR wise, sponsors didn’t react as positively. Nike and Porsche “suspended” their relationships with her and Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer “suspended negotiations” to extend its contract with her. Ironically, Head tennis racquets publicly supported her, even though she will likely be away from tennis for a yet-to-be-announced period and not be able to showcase its product during matches.
Johnny be gone
Somewhere in the middle but just as concerning was the anticipated release of Manziel who played 15 games and started eight of them for the Cleveland Browns. Reports of his hard party, undisciplined lifestyle and most recently, a domestic violence charge led the Browns to make a simple announcement of his release Friday.
Manziel’s situation is more a life issue than a public-relations one, although with each episode, he continued to make the Browns look bad for overlooking his past when they drafted him in 2014.
Only Manziel knows his true-life challenges. Is he partying because he simply likes to? Does he have a substance problem? Does he feel he’s entitled to do what he wants because he has all his life? Regardless of those answers, another NFL team will have to think long and hard if it thinks it will get a different persona from the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Three professional athletes with three issues played out in the public in a few short days. Public relations and branding professors have a lot to talk about as the 2016 Spring semester ends.
©Gail Sideman, PUBLISIDE 2016