‘Stealing thunder’ in sports public relations

A version of this article was submitted as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment by Stuart Moffatt, who studied with PR Academy.

In the sports industry, individual athletes and organisations have an ethical predicament when faced with a crisis which is not yet known to the media or public: should they elect to self-disclose the relevant information before a third party exposes it or do they ‘keep a lid on it’ and conceal the information in the hope that it will not become public knowledge?

During a time when the Edelman Trust Barometer reports that the public has increasingly lost trust and faith in institutions around the world, crisis management research has indicated it is ethically the correct decision for individuals and organisations to fully self-disclose information about a crisis and communicate honestly and transparently with all stakeholders who are affected by it.

Yet, in reality, it appears that individuals and organisations are fearful of taking responsibility and self-disclosing information about a crisis because they believe it will lead to lasting reputational damage following unwelcome attention from the media and other interested parties, and that the admittance of potentially incriminating information may also incur legal liability.

Indeed, both individuals and organisations seem hesitant to proactively and openly communicate with stakeholders so long as the possibility exists that the crisis can be dealt with internally without public knowledge and the crisis is considered limited in nature by senior management.

This approach is risky at best and individuals and organisations must realise that the truth will surface eventually, particularly when media and consumers have access to more information than ever before and social media enables rapid and widespread sharing of information worldwide.

In a sporting context, consider USA Gymnastics which was subject to a media investigation by the Indy Star which exposed the governing body for its failure to disclose serious allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse perpetrated by coaches against child athletes to the relevant law enforcement authorities, its stakeholders and the public. The public revelations led to a gymnast reporting a complaint against USA Gymnastics employee Dr Larry Nassar who was subsequently convicted of abusing over 150 athletes and was sentenced to 170 years imprisonment.

Or professional cyclist Lance Armstrong, who continually denied and legally challenged allegations of systematic doping throughout a sustained period of sporting success which included seven Tour de France titles. He was eventually charged by the US Anti-Doping Agency who disclosed that Armstronghad operated a widespread doping regime for several years and was corroborated by the testimonies of former team-mates and individuals close to him.

The consequences of failing to self-disclose a crisis which is subsequently revealed by third parties can be devastating.

High levels of negative media coverage and widespread public indignation on social media will severely damage their reputation leading to loss of trust and confidence from sports fans and the general public, reduction in investment by sponsors, lawsuits and criminal proceedingsresignation of c-suite executives and the instigation of government inquiries and reports.

The long-term implications for the reputation of individual athletes and sports organisations in crisis should therefore not be taken lightly and the increasing prevalence of crises and scandals in the sports industry led former Labour Party Director of Communications Alastair Campbell to conclude that “sport takes bronze when it comes to understanding the importance of reputation management”.

Therefore, how can public relations practitioners operating on behalf of individual athletes and sports organisations manage crises more effectively to lessen their destructive impact on reputation?

Recent academic research offers evidence for the effectiveness of using ‘stealing thunder’ as an alternative crisis management strategy, which involves an individual or organisation proactively self-disclosing crisis information before other interested parties, such as the media, become aware of the incriminating information.

The usefulness of stealing thunder was first established within the contexts of social psychology and law but has recently been advocated within the research field of crisis communications where the rationale and potential benefits for public relations practitioners have been documented.

According to the research, there are six reasons why practitioners should use stealing thunder to self-disclose information when individuals and organisations become aware of a crisis so that they can mitigate its effects on reputation.

Increase credibility

Individual athletes and sports organisations who self-disclose incriminating information will appear more credible because people do not expect them to willingly divulge major problems and issues about themselves. Rather, they expect that information revealed by an individual or organisation in crisis will be one-sided and biased.

Stealing thunder, however, supplants these expectations, thereby increasing the credibility of an individual or organisation and reducing the reputational damage which they may suffer. Importantly for practitioners, research has also confirmed that media reporters consider them to be a more credible source when they steal thunder on behalf of an individual or organisation.

The importance of maintaining credibility in a sporting context was underlined by the corruption crisis which continues to overshadow FIFA, the world football governing body. Following the arrest of several FIFA executives suspected of widespread corruption, organisational spokespersons, including then president Sepp Blatter, continued to deny the existence of institutional corruption to the worldwide media despite the charges levied on its senior executives by the FBI.

The organisation and its senior leadership lost significant credibility in the eyes of its stakeholders and millions of fans around the world, tarnishing its reputation and thereby reducing FIFA’s ability to retain financial investment by sponsors.

Reduce crisis severity

Practitioners should also be persuaded by research which details that individual athletes and sports organisations can benefit by using stealing thunder to reduce the severity of a crisis as perceived by stakeholders.

In the eyes of the public, the revelation of negative information may be inconsistent with their expectations and they may resolve that inconsistency by changing the meaning of that information. In the crisis context, people may consider the issue or problem as less severe because they expect that the individual or organisation would never voluntarily reveal damaging information about themselves.

Reducing the severity of a crisis within the sports industry is of particular interest to practitioners who wish to protect the reputation of athletes and organisations and minimise the impact of any negative outcomes resulting from a crisis.

Consider the severity of the doping crisis which blemished the reputation and integrity of world athletics following the leak of incriminating anti-doping data by the Fancy Bears hacking group and the subsequent investigation and recommendation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that Russian athletes be banned from competition.

A study commissioned by Sports Business International revealed that the reputation score for athletics among fans in the UK dropped from 30.9% in October 2015 to -1.2% in March 2016 as a result of the crisis, while long-term commercial partner adidas severed its sponsorship agreement with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) three years early costing the organisation an estimated £20m in revenues.

Less attention

There are fears among practitioners that self-disclosing a crisis will lead to significant levels of unwanted attention from the media and the public, but research reflects the contrary: individuals and organisations who reveal crisis information first have been found to receive less attention than thosecrises discovered by another party.

To illustrate, results of a study which compared media coverage of four high profile individuals in crisis demonstrated that individuals who steal thunder receive less media coverage and that stories and reports about the crisis are framed in a more positive manner. This is explained by commodity theory which, in the context of a crisis, suggests that when information is made freely available and is less scarce, it is less interesting and less valuable to people, including reporters.

The comparable situations of American entertainment icon David Letterman and golf superstar Tiger Woods, who both faced a crisis due to the existence of their extra-marital affairs, help to illustrate this.

Letterman stole thunder and self-disclosed this information during his popular talk show, using humour to make it sound like an amusing anecdote rather than a personal crisis. Woods, on the other hand, remained silent on the issue and waited until the media revealed the circumstances of his personal crisis.

Encouraging outcomes for Letterman’s reputation included much less media coverage, more positive frames in news articles and fewer negative frames. Moreover, stealing thunder was effective in bringing closure to the story and helped the media move onto writing about what happens next for Letterman. Conversely, Woods’ reputation was tarnished by higher levels of intense media coverage which was found to be more negative in sentiment.

Set the tone

By stealing thunder, practitioners can seize the opportunity for individual athletes and sports organisations to set the tone and tell the story in their own way. A significant advantage gained from self-disclosure is the ability to frame the crisis according to their own terms and downplay its significance to the media and stakeholders.

Individuals and organisations who appear to be more remorseful than rational in their communication will also benefit from being perceived by stakeholders as being more sincere, thereby positively influencing post-crisis reputation, a significant outcome by which practitioners may be judged.

frequently cited success story in sports crisis management concerns the tennis star Maria Sharapova who in 2016 called a press conference to reveal to the media and wider public that she had tested positive for a banned substance at the Australian Open before this information was released by the tennis authorities.

During the press conference, Sharapova fully disclosed the circumstances that led to her anti-doping violation and took full responsibility for her actions. This approach enabled her to own and control the narrative which was delivered in a remorseful manner to the media in attendance. There was little left for the media to reveal or investigate.

Thanks to her self-disclosure, Sharapova was able to tell the story on her own terms, generating positive comments in the media from fellow athletes including Serena Williams and fans, who showed their support using social media hashtags #IStandWithMaria and #WholeWorldWithSharapova.

Influencing consumers

Practitioners can persuade individuals and colleagues to use stealing thunder in a crisis thanks to research which demonstrates that consumers are more likely to buy from you again in the future if you self-disclose the crisis information first, rather than being revealed by an external third party.

Stealing thunder can therefore provide an important advantage for sports organisations who wish to remain profitable and continue to generate revenues from the sale of tickets for events and competitions and branded merchandise to fans.

A question of ethics

When individual athletes and sports organisations experience a crisis, they have an ethical duty to take full responsibility and truthfully disclose crisis information in its entirety to all affected stakeholders.

As such, practitioners should remind colleagues that in times of crisis, stealing thunder enables individuals and organisations to prioritise the needs of their stakeholders and behave ethically.

Stakeholders are more likely to have a favourable response to this approach and consider the individual or organisation as more ethical than ones who choose to conceal information and appear defensive.

In times of crisis, practitioners should be aware stealing thunder is the most effective means to strategically manage and protect the reputation of individuals and organisations.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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