In Public Relations

truthTypically, when an athlete fails a drug test, we are conditioned to expect an angry denial followed by a litany of excuses detailing how there is no way the test could be accurate.

We have seen this strategy employed by Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez.

That is why when tennis superstar Maria Sharapova announced that she had failed a drug test at this year’s Australian Open, her response was refreshing – she was honest.

Sharapova admitted that she had tested positive for Meldonium – a drug that is used to improve blood flow to the body tissue. It is not FDA approved in the United States, but is legal to prescribe in Lithuania and her native Russia. Sharapova has been taking the drug for the past ten years. However, it was added to the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) 2016 banned list.

“I did fail the test, and I take full responsibility for it,” said Sharapova at her a press conference where she read a statement and fielded questions from the media.

Instead of waiting for a journalist to break the story, Sharapova got out in front of the story. She was able to control how it was disseminated to the media. This would not have been the case had the news leaked from another source.

While a cynical observer may question how she and her team overlooked this newly banned drug when WADA issued its list of banned supplements last September, she has earned a great deal of praise and sympathy for her handling of this situation from the likes of tennis great Martina Navratilova and retired men’s tennis pro, James Blake, among others.

The long-term outcome of Sharapova’s brand is yet to be determined. However, people tend to be more forgiving with stars that are honest about their missteps. Some of her sponsors, such as Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche, have distanced themselves from Sharapova for the time being. That is to be expected – they have to protect their brands.

Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis, each of whom had significant legal issues, both bounced back to endorse items such as video games and athletic apparel. Former New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettite, admitted that he took HGH when trying to recover from an injury, the public forgave him and he was able to move on.

Although it seems like a very simple strategy – being honest – many public relations practitioners eschew this path for the aggressive tactic of denial, which is never a winner in the long run. No matter how painful it is, honesty is always the best policy in public relations.

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