When dealing with a crisis, from a PR and reputation management perspective, the worst thing you can be is on the back foot. There is nothing worse for an individual, or company, to be caught off guard and have to play catch-up with the media, especially when it can be easily avoided.
One of the first rules of crisis management is to make sure you own the story and control the narrative as best you can. You want to be the one putting information out in an authoritative manner, not coming across as defensive and responsive.
Which is why Maria Sharapova’s admission that she failed a drugs test at the Australian Open is a good lesson in how to deal with a potentially career defining crisis.
Regardless of the outcome of disciplinary decisions (a ban or fine seems inevitable), the overall feeling towards Sharapova is far more sympathetic that it could have been.
Too often, these types of stories are met with denials, in some cases attacks, in other cases complete silence.
But Sharapova’s response – getting the information out herself and admitting to a mistake – has saved her from weeks of damage control.
While further questions may still be asked in the coming weeks as to why she was taking the (now banned) medication for ten years, by acting quickly and acknowledging her breach of the regulations, she has avoided the appearance of being outed as a cheat and presented herself as someone who has owned up to making a genuine mistake.
She has even managed to move the news agenda forward - acknowledging the breach, taking full responsibility for it, and throwing herself on the mercy of the tennis authorities (hopefully helped by the backing of swayed public opinion). As such, the media have nowhere else to go and are left to report the story she has given them.
Even the setting, appearing by herself in front of a bland backdrop, gave the impression of a woman out on her own taking full responsibility for her own mistake.
It wouldn’t be a crisis if things didn’t go wrong and some sponsors immediately suspended deals with the tennis superstar (they have their own businesses to think about after all), but for the most part the aftermath was pretty tame.
Criticism came, but so did support and praise for a brave decision to admit a mistake.
And, in an even more positive move for Sharapova, one of her sponsors has reaffirmed their support for her and challenged the decision to ban the medication she says she has been taking. Not only does Sharapova's reputation benefit from this show of support, the announcement has also worked to move the news story on from what she did and shine the media spotlight back on the doping regulators.
Some people in the media, and the public, can be cynical. But those cynical voices are often a lot louder when public figures are found to have transgressed, but unlike Sharapova, choose to deny, fight back or simply avoid facing up to their responsibilities.
The PR management of this crisis, admit it and move on, is a much better approach.