Crisis communication in sports media

January 29, 2023

Capacity building of employees and players in field of communication can save national sports organisations from bad publicity

Crisis communication in sports media

Life of a Public Relations practitioner and media manager is usually frantic. And I can vouch for it with confidence, owing to my 25 years of experience in various top media management & PR positions in public, corporate, development and sports organisations of the country.

The situation becomes more desperate when our colleagues consider themselves experts to write crisp and precise copy with a stunning concept or issue an inappropriate statement in front of the media in a hurried press conference. This happens because of the lack of understanding of the scope of the activity and the media chosen to address the target audience.

The advent of social media has made everyone a media expert, ready to fire an opinion on sensitive issues, irrespective of its impact and outcome.

Sports public relations is not just about making fair perceptions & firefighting in media, but a top managerial communication-based function designed to identify a sports organisation’s key publics and foster desirable relationships between the organisation and those publics.

PR offers two broad benefits to sport organisations. First, it generates the much-needed revenue by supporting the marketing of products and services, by providing products that can be sold, and by advancing the sports organisation’s reputation with key publics. Second, it enables sport organisations to save money by avoiding mistakes that would alienate customers and other important publics.

The management always has high expectations from its media manager without involving him or her in the decision-making process and expects him to run from pillar to post to mitigate crises, without sufficient human and financial resources. Mostly the media managers come to know about crises and bad press when the situation has gone out of management’s control.

Remember that all negative incidents don’t qualify as crises and can best be branded as incidents. Others may be severe enough to qualify as emergencies. However, organisation heads mostly overreact to situations and are in the habit of creating a storm in a tea cup, without consulting the PR consultants.

Keeping in view the limited space, I shall restrict the scope of my article to crisis communication management in sports organisations only. Crisis communications consultant Gail Brown defined a crisis as any event that significantly alters the activities that were going on; or anything that would stop the normal flow of activities. Thus, a crisis possesses three major characteristics. First, it is often unexpected. Second, it is usually disruptive. Thirdly, it frequently leads to allegations against sports organisations and usually those allegations do not take into account the whole situation.

During my brief stint with PCB, I observed, encountered and managed five major crises that directly impacted PCB image in the media. Here I would take the liberty to use them as examples for our learning and bring improvement in the system process.

In November 2006, before proceeding to 2007 ICC World Cup, fast bowler duo of Muhammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar were banned for one and two years, respectively, when they tested positive at home for use of a drug called Nandrolene. International media exploited the incident, whereas PCB medical team tried to bail out the ace bowlers, stating that it was a medicine given for recovery from knee and ankle injuries.

In December 2006, during the third ODI between Pakistan and West Indies at Gaddafi Stadium Lahore, a power failure occurred to one of the six transformers, resulting in suspension of match for more than an hour. The match was being televised live and the President had to grace the occasion and his arrival to the stadium was delayed. The fault occurred due to external factors.

In March 2007 came the major crisis when Pakistan team Coach Bob Woolmer died under mysterious circumstances during Pakistan’s tour to West Indies. After the West Indian tour, Pakistan team had to tour South Africa to participate in the T20 World Cup in September, and the flamboyant Shoaib Akhtar was recalled from the tournament after a brawl with teammate Muhammad Asif.

In June 2008, fast bowler Muhammad Asif was detained at Dubai airport for 36 hours for carrying an illegal substance in his wallet. This crisis was resolved only due to personal efforts and interest of then Chairman Dr Naseem Ashraf, without which the situation would have gone extremely dreadful.

Though the crises were resolved one way or the other, frequency of occurrence shows that either there was some flaw in the procedures or no SOPs existed to avoid such disasters.

When you critically look into the PR & media management process of most of our sports organisations, it’s astonishing to note that no crisis communication plan exists. We all understand that crises are disruptive by nature, difficult to predict and manage but a proactive approach and a crisis communication plan can save most of the organisations from big embarrassments.

Crisis communication plans are not designed to prescribe responses for every conceivable crisis, but they provide general guidelines for each staff member by specifying their responsibilities for sharing information internally and externally in a timely and precise manner. From my experience I can safely say that if the management keeps its faith in its media manager and responds appropriately, it stands an excellent chance of successfully weathering the crisis.

A successful crisis communication plan has five steps. The first step is to ensure that the senior management approves and supports the plan. Without such support, individuals involved in the planning process will not view it as a priority.

Secondly, though the PR staff is integral in the entire process, it is not the only one responsible. Thus, involvement of individuals from the board or planning committee is strongly recommended. If an organisation has an HR committee, a finance committee and a discipline committee then why not a PR & crisis management committee?

The third critical step is to ensure that all employees recognise the existence of the plan and the importance of its use when a crisis occurs. It’s not necessary that all employees should possess a copy of the entire plan, but they should understand how to contact an appropriate crisis team member if they notice a crisis developing.

The fourth step is to test the efficacy of the plan. These tests can range from complete mock drills to more limited forms such as call-back exercises in which members of a crisis communication team go through the sequence of mandated contacts to see how quickly important connections may be made available.

The fifth and final step is that sports managers must remain committed and actually use their organisation’s plan when a crisis occurs. If the senior management feels it can better manage the crisis “winning it” through other ways it is surely going to face embarrassment.

Dealing with the media is often the most important aspect of any crisis communication process. Crises are by definition newsworthy, and members of the media have the right to generate as much information as possible about the story. Besides the official spokesperson, the designated member of the PR team, the players, coaching staff and employees of sport organisations are the best and most reliable sources of information for the media.

The organisation must adopt clear and strict media policies like policies on doping and match fixing to avoid confusion when dealing with media. The players and coaching staff must be briefed in detail about the organisation’s communication policy and written instructions in this regard should also be communicated to all the concerned.

The sports PR persons must remain available to the media and respond to their requests at times of crisis.

If we look at the recent past the media management at PCB headquarters was not very palpable because of poor media handling. Remember that the media will throw difficult and awkward questions and the PR officials must anticipate them. The phrase “No Comments” should be avoided by substituting it with a polite and informative response.

Sports organisations in our system are in the habit of passing the buck to previous regimes and live by blame games. If the organisation is at fault, the spokesman should admit it. Most of the time the management expects that the media team should be influential enough to stop the negative news, which is usually not possible despite good relations with the media. Sports PR professionals should not request the media members to withhold the damaging information but rather try to get the organisation’s point of view included in the news coverage.

It’s vital for the communication staff and organizational spokesperson to remain calm and professional, even in emotionally charged settings.

Crises are events of controversies that may damage a sports organization’s brand image and financial standing. Despite the widespread occurrences of crisis within sports and its obvious visibility, sports organisations are unprepared to handle them. Crisis communication plan and capacity building of employees and players in the field of communication can save the organisation from bad press.

Crisis communication in sports media