PLMR's Rob Comba on how professional athletes should deal with allegations of taking banned substances.

Last week, Paula Radcliffe made a very bold decision and decided to speak out publicly against a fairly faint allegation she may have taken performance enhancing drugs.

From a PR perspective, Radcliffe’s actions raised an extremely interesting question – what is the best way to approach the media when dealing with allegations of this nature?

Let’s take a look at three contrasting approaches all employed by high-profile British athletes this summer (we can still call September summer, right?).

The front-foot approach
In PR terms, Radcliffe was more cricketer than marathon runner – getting on the front early, dictating the game and, more importantly, the headlines. She immediately released a 1,700 word statement and could be seen all over our screens. This was before there was even really a hint of a suggestion she might have taken drugs.

Being so aggressive is a risky move, there’s the possibility you look like you’re protesting too much. However, in this instance, Radcliffe knows she is held in high esteem by the British public. Her hope will be that people side with her and think ‘why would she be so proactive if she had done anything wrong?’.

Take yourself away from the spotlight
Another icon of British athletics, Mo Farah, was also embroiled in drugs allegations earlier this year. His coach, Alberto Salazar, was at the centre of a BBC Panorama documentary which claimed he plied a former sprinter with performance enhancing drugs.

Farah’s response was to pull out of a race in Birmingham, claiming he was “emotionally and physically drained”.

Attempting to take himself out of the spotlight actually had the opposite effect, and meant he was thrust further into it as an abundance of column inches were dedicated to his withdrawal. A ‘business as usual’ approach may have been more advisable here.

Farah’s mistake was to not realise there were two people involved with two completely contrasting reputations. To put it simply (in the public’s eyes) – Farah = Good; Salazar = Bad.

This is perhaps where Farah selected the wrong shot to play. He went for the sympathy vote when perhaps a better move would have been to distance himself from Salazar altogether.

The issue did not go away. Shortly after the Salazar claims, The Mail on Sunday came back with accusations directed at Farah himself, saying he missed two drugs tests.

Blind them with stats
The third British sporting star to be accused of doping this year was the cyclist Chris Froome.  On a French television programme, a doctor in physiology, Pierre Sallet, suggested Froome had doped by claiming he had a higher power to weight ratio than any other non-doped cyclist ever.

In a bid to get back to the front of the media peloton, the response from Froome and his team was to release data which they said disproved Sallet’s figure.

This was a very clever PR move – it doesn’t matter that the new power figure released was called into question about as much as Sallet’s. It showed that Froome is willing to be transparent and it moved the debate on from ‘Has Chris Froome taken performance enhancing drugs?’ to ‘Whose data is more accurate?’

Moving the debate on to the merits of various statistical approaches took the heat off him. The media furore then died down and Froome went on to claim the Yellow Jersey for a second time in his career.

All three of these approaches reflects a general rule in PR – whilst every situation is different, being open and engaging with the media is more often than not the best route to take. Being proactive, rather than letting the story develop around you, is likely to give you more control over how the game is played out in the press.

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PLMR’s crisis communications experience is second to none, and includes pre-emptive and reactive work across traditional and social media channels. We work with a range of organisations to offer critical communication support when they are faced with difficult and challenging scenarios.