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Communication during a crisis

This is an excerpt from Strategic Sport Communication-3rd Edition by Paul M. Pedersen,Pamela C. Laucella,Edward Kian & Andrea Nicole Geurin.

Sport entities are sometimes faced with crises that could tarnish their image by creating unfavorable perceptions in the minds of the media and key constituents. Any threat to a sport entity's image or reputation constitutes a crisis because an entity's reputation is one of its major assets (Saia, 2016). Responding to a crisis often means more than simply responding to media inquiries; it sometimes requires a concerted organizational response.

Examples of Crises in Sport

Crises can arise from something as simple as comments made during an interview. For example, at the 2016 BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, the CEO and tournament director Raymond Moore said in an interview that the women tennis players "ride on the coattails of the men" (ESPN.com News Service, 2016, para. 3). Moore went on to say, "They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have." (para. 3). Moore's comments sparked outrage from prominent female tennis players such as Billie Jean King, who was instrumental in gaining equal pay for women tennis players, as well as Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Martina Navratilova. Moore eventually apologized, saying his comments were "in extremely poor taste and erroneous" (para. 13), but the damage was done. Just one day later, Moore resigned from his position, which Larry Ellison, the owner of the site of the tournament, Indian Wells, said was the right decision. Ellison went on to thank the four previously mentioned female tennis players for their leadership in the sport.

Crises can also result from posts made on social media, as was the case in 2014 when Paul George, an all-star player for the NBA's Indiana Pacers, tweeted out his support for an NFL player, Ray Rice, who was suspended in a highly publicized domestic violence incident. George's tweet read, "I don't condone hittin women or think it's coo BUT if SHE ain't trippin then I ain't trippin. Lets keep it movin lol let that man play!" (Sims, 2014, para. 3). Thousands of NBA fans took to Twitter to chastise George for his insensitive comment. Although George deleted the tweet within an hour of posting it, he continued to tweet about the issue, claiming his words had been taken out of context, and to discuss relationships in which women are violent toward men. The president of basketball operations for the Pacers at the time, Larry Bird, issued a statement about the tweets, which said, "Paul George's tweets from earlier were thoughtless and without regard to the subject of domestic violence and its seriousness in society. We have talked to Paul to strongly express our displeasure and made it clear that the NBA and the Pacers' organization will not condone or tolerate remarks of this nature. Paul understands that he was wrong and why his tweets were so inappropriate and is very apologetic" (Sims, 2014, para. 6). Despite this statement from Bird, most fans who continued to discuss the situation did not believe George was sincere in his apology.

Sometimes crises arise from volatile situations or from incidents that happen during a sporting event. One example of this stems from the NFL. In 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the pregame playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick said that he did so to protest police brutality of black people in America and racial injustices that exist in society. He had spoken with military veterans to ask about a respectful way to protest, and they suggested taking a knee. NFL fans were drastically divided in their reaction to Kaepernick, with his detractors saying that he was being disrespectful and un-American and was bringing politics into the game of football. It became a national controversy, with everyone from other athletes to celebrities to President Barack Obama weighing in. In March of 2017, amid the controversy, Kaepernick opted out of his contract, and no NFL team has since signed him to a contract. Other players followed Kaepernick's lead and also began to kneel; in 2018, the NFL enacted a policy requiring players to stand during the national anthem, although it allowed them to stay in the locker room during the national anthem if they chose to do so. Teams of players who knelt were to be fined, according to the policy. The new policy was widely viewed in a negative light, with popular news outlets such as Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune blasting the NFL's move. Public relations expert and Forbes columnist Robert Wynne called it "a PR nightmare" (Wynne, 2018, para. 1). The issue is still not resolved, with NFL fans still sharply divided, and NFL television ratings have declined since the incident began.

Interestingly, the way that another sport organization, Nike, handled the Kaepernick national anthem situation was viewed as one of the best responses to a crisis situation by some PR experts (Prezly, 2018). In 2018, Nike developed a campaign featuring Kaepernick with the tagline, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." Much like the kneeling incident itself, the video ad that went along with Nike's campaign was highly controversial. In the days following the ad's release, Nike's stock dropped 3 percent, and some consumers were publicly cutting Nike logos off their shoes or clothes or using black Sharpie markers to cover Nike logos on their apparel. Through it all, Nike and Kaepernick stood their ground and did not apologize for the ad. It turned out to be an excellent strategy for the company, as Nike's sales increased 31 percent and their stock also reached an all-time high. The ad was viewed most favorably by young people in the 18 to 34 age group. Both the NFL and Nike's handling of the crisis illustrate the importance of crisis communication (and specifically the planning, cooperation, and teamwork) that must exist within a sport organization to achieve positive results.

Guidelines for Responding to Crises

The scenarios described here exemplify the crises that can face sport entities. Crises in sport can take many shapes and forms and involve issues such as player eligibility, player arrest, player death, incidents on the field of play, and the firing of a coach. The public usually forms its perception of a crisis situation within the first 24 hours of the crisis (Nichols et al., 2002). Due to the news being reported on various communication outlets 24 hours a day, sport organizations are under more intense media scrutiny than ever before, and the increasing prevalence of social media use means that sport public relations professionals must be ready to respond to crisis situations more quickly than in the past (Stoldt et al., 2021). First impressions are often the most difficult perceptions to change, and the manner in which an organization initially responds to a crisis often exerts a dramatic effect on the public's perception of the crisis.

To prepare for crisis situations, sport public relations professionals should, with other staff members, brainstorm possible situations that may occur throughout the course of a season (or year) that could threaten the organization's image. Possible situations can be categorized as either unexpected threats or continuous threats. Unexpected threats might include, for example, a player arrest, the firing of a head coach, or a serious injury to a fan or group of fans. Continuous threats may involve various organizational policies that can affect relations with key constituents, such as ticket sales policies, game day operational issues, and even locker room policies.

The organization must put specific plans in place to address crises as they arise. Without proper preparation for a crisis, public perception will usually be negative. Preparation procedures should be kept as simple and straightforward as possible to establish early and regular communication during a crisis. The main objective of any crisis plan should be to quickly and accurately communicate information that can minimize damage to the sport organization's reputation. To begin preparing for a crisis, sport public relations professionals should follow several key steps (see figure 10.3).

Figure 10.3 Steps in crisis management.

Figure 10.3 Steps in crisis management.

To begin, sport public relations professionals should conduct research within the organization. The organization's philosophy for managing the crisis and the makeup of a crisis team should be determined through consultations at all levels of management. The crisis team is instrumental in managing any crisis situation, and its assessment efforts should include predicting and analyzing crisis situations that could arise (crises vary based on the nature of the sport entity). To guide personnel during the crisis, the organization should establish a clear chain of command that specifies roles for leaders and others. Procedures should also be outlined for notifying the crisis team when a crisis occurs. Staff should make any necessary modifications in standard operating procedure to control for any issues or risks that might occur.

Crisis Kit

Sport public relations professionals should prepare a crisis kit. Key components of the kit include a media relations checklist (including guidelines for dealing with the media), a synopsis of policies and procedures, the crisis strategy, and contact information for key personnel. All information in the kit should be checked regularly for accuracy.

Sport public relations personnel should prepare key members of the crisis team to interact with the media; for example, key personnel should rehearse the crisis plan. Public relations professionals should also work diligently to create a cooperative environment with the media during a crisis. Existing media relationships may be key in managing the crisis, and personnel should be responsive and accessible to the media. In contrast, failing to return phone calls or using statements such as "no comment" may intensify the situation. Sport public relations professionals should strive to meet the demands of the organization while also providing the media with needed information.

Sport entities sometimes face crises that could tarnish their image by creating unfavorable perceptions in the minds of the media and key constituents. In this context, a crisis is anything that threatens a sport entity's image. Crises can arise anytime as the result of various factors. Sport public relations professionals must be prepared to manage a crisis situation when it occurs to maintain a favorable image among key constituents.

Case Study in Crisis Communication: Deeper Issues in the BNP Paribas Crisis

In addition to the details given in this chapter about the BNP Paribas crisis centered on tournament director Raymond Moore's sexist comments, the following case study provides necessary context to further examine the crisis from a critical perspective.

The history of professional women's tennis has long been steeped in sexism. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) was formed in 1973 by tennis legend Billie Jean King with the goal of providing equal opportunity to women in the sport. Until then, women were paid far less than their male counterparts and at tournaments were often cast to the outside courts that did not draw nearly as much attention from fans. Through the hard work and dedication of women like King, women finally won the battle to earn equal prize money in all four tennis Grand Slam tournaments in 2007, 34 years after the WTA was formed.

Despite receiving equal pay, sexism is still alive in the sport, as evidenced by Moore's comments at the BNP Paribas. Some critics drew comparisons between Moore and former male tennis player Bobby Riggs, who famously challenged King to a "Battle of the Sexes" tennis tournament in 1973, which King won. Riggs later said, "Billie and I did wonders for women's tennis. They owe me a piece of their checks." Many felt that Moore's comments were reminiscent of Riggs' back in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, Moore was not alone in displaying sexism at the BNP Paribas tournament. When asked to comment on Moore's words, the men's tournament winner, Serbian athlete Novak Djokovic, displayed his own sexist views. With regard to equal prize money, Djokovic said, "I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches. I think that's one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more."

Adding insult to injury, Djokovic went on to offend women around the world by talking about their hormones, casting women as the "other" or as delicate inferior beings, saying, "I have tremendous respect for what women in global sport are doing and achieving. Their bodies are much different to men's bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don't have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don't need to go into details."

These incidents at the 2016 BNP Paribas tournament reflected poorly on the tournament's reputation as well as on Djokovic's, highlighting that despite the progress made for equality in women's tennis, sexism is still very much an issue. League officials, tournament directors, and athletes' managers must be prepared to deal with these crisis situations.