Being branded a drugs cheat is about as bad as it gets for any athlete. But Maria Sharapova has served up a fine lesson in crisis management by getting on the front foot, having been found to have been taken a banned substance.
By taking the lead and announcing she had failed a drugs test, rather than waiting for the authorities to announce it, she immediately set the tone of how the story would be portrayed at the outset, which is vital in any crisis management situation that is likely to be played out in the public domain. First impressions stick with viewers and readers, who are likely to adhere to that view regardless of how the story then plays out.
It headed off the far more damaging situation of having to react after the World Anti-Doping Agency announced, as it would have done, her failed test, which will always increase the guilt of appearing that you have something to hide.
Her mea culpa was a clever move, and allowed her to lead the agenda by coming across as upfront and honest. Immaculately dressed, long blonde hair flowing, teary at just the right time, it was a fantastic performance of the laying bare of the soul.
Admitting she took the drug, that she wouldn’t be seeking a test on her B sample, and even coming clean, if you pardon the pun, that she hadn’t bothered opening an email from the World Anti-Doping Agency which decreed it had moved Meldonium, which Sharapova had taken for years, from the acceptable to the unacceptable list, allowed her to be portrayed in many quarters as simply having made a stupid mistake rather than being a conniving, cynical cheat.
Regardless of whether she's the former or the latter, as a result of her move, criticism has been limited and in fact, many have come out in support. While some of her main sponsors have stepped away, so far plenty have stayed. The immediate fallout has been as positive as it could have been.
Even more extraordinary is that the very harsh questions that need to be asked about why she took the drug for such a long time and precisely why in the context of WADA's reason for moving it onto the banned list -
- It became a prohibited substance on 1 January 2016, because of "evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance."
- have been buried under the rush of support for her "bravery" from players, coaches and other tennis luminaries. She's played a blinder.
Where the story goes remains to be seen, but in the war to save her career and reputation, Sharapova has won the opening battle.