Categorized | Legal

When in Crisis, Watch Your Blind Side the First 48 Hours

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Today, negative reports of professional athletes dominate the headlines. Within minutes it can ravage reputations and diminish an athlete’s brand. Therefore, in a time of instant and lasting impressions, knowing the strategies and tactics that bulletproof a professional athlete’s reputation is a career survival imperative.

It’s no longer a question of whether crises will happen. The question is what is your level of preparedness for mitigating risk when a crisis occurs?

What’s at stake when an issue isn’t properly managed? Potentially everything. The effects of negative media coverage can be permanent. It can short change careers, sponsorships and endorsement deals. In a criminal proceeding, it can help trigger jail time.

An athlete’s personal brand can also be derailed in social media at a high rate of speed due to failure to properly manage issues at the onset.

Case in point, Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice lost a lucrative sponsorship deal with Jaguar after allegedly making a controversial remark on Twitter and Tiger Woods lost several deals after his case played out day after day in traditional and online media.

Lessons can be learned outside of the sports arena as well. Two former employees from Domino’s Pizza were just having “fun” when they created a video of themselves defiling pizzas intended for consumer consumption. Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet, within 24 hours more than 750,000 viewed the video and hundreds posted blogs. Domino’s later stepped in an attempt to do damage control but it was too late. Just four days after the video posted, the company’s stock dropped by more than 10 percent.

Professional athletes must be ready at a moment’s notice to implement integrated reputation management strategies that include sophisticated, professional, and systematic programs geared to protect their image throughout the course of a crisis. Absent such strategies, an athlete will often surrender a significant advantage to adversaries in both a court of law and the Court of Public Opinion.

In order to mitigate risk within the first 48 hours of crisis, keep these eight rules in mind.

First, remember that perception is reality. As soon as an incident occurs, consider how the issue will be received by all potential stakeholders. If it involves a sports related event, consider the impact on the entire fan base, not just the parties that have been directly impacted. The fans are in essence the “arm chair jurors” that will drive the public’s perception of the alleged wrongdoing.

Assemble your team and the gather needed intelligence. The quintessential issues management team is comprised of  legal counsel, the agent, in-house or outside communications professionals and the coach or manager closest to the situation at hand. Once assembled, job one is to discern the facts. What is the issue? Who is involved? Why did it happen? Is the media aware of the situation? Who needs to be informed? Once the battleground has been surveyed, it is then crucial to reexamine the past for issues not yet put to bed. Any previous infractions, disciplinary actions, civil or criminal litigation or outstanding issues that have yet to be resolved will most certainly be resurrected in the courtroom or the Court of Public Opinion. Knowing what these issues are is an obvious key to crafting the most effective responses.

Define the desired end game. The intelligence you’ve gathered will enable you to determine whether the goal of the crisis campaign is outright vindication, the quiet settlement of a lawsuit, or a public display of repentance and redemption. Each objective requires drastically different internal and public communications strategies to come to fruition.

Assess, control and treat. Managing a crisis early is the key to success. It is a concept that is easily broken down into a three-pronged imperative: assess the potential negative impact on reputation; quickly take steps to control the message; and as appropriate, provide remedies to affected parties that could mitigate the likelihood of litigation or penalties.

Treasure your online reputation. While hundreds of thousands of people have mastered social media platforms such as the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, and You Tube when it comes to the exchange of ideas and thoughts online, some professional athletes fail to manage their brands in the social media when it comes to mitigating controversy or managing the dream careers they have worked for all of their lives.

Recognize the power of the Court of Public Opinion in legal matters. Prejudicial information is going to obtrude on a case whether the court bars it or not. Jurors cannot turn off their memories like a spigot, and, as a practical matter, limiting exposure to the Internet is impossible. Exposure to pretrial publicity impacts juror memory and decision-making, according to a report by the American Psychological Association, which also shows how such exposure significantly drives guilty verdicts and obviates defendants’ credibility.

Deploy third party allies. Identify and recruit potential third-party advocates. Third-parties are very important because they are perceived as more credible than someone with a direct interest in the outcome of the case or issue.

Finally, anticipate problems. Use peacetime wisely and develop a “playbook” for all anticipated problems before an issue rises to the level of a crisis.

There is no single script for managing a successful issues management or crisis problem, but there are best practices and, most importantly, sound judgment. Make sure your team has the necessary judgment, knowledge and first-hand experience.

Whether faced with a DUI, substance abuse allegation or “Bounty-gate’ like scandal, the most important takeaway for any professional athlete confronting the reputational impact of a crisis is to protect and manage your brand at the onset. Don’t wait until five minutes before the big game time to form your defensive line.

About Derede McAlpin Esq

Derede McAlpin, J.D., is a high profile trial and online reputation management expert. She is Vice President with Levick Strategic Communications and a fellow with the Council on Litigation Management. She served as a contributor for the Washington Post’s "The League" providing crisis counsel on issues affecting the NFL and its players. She received her law degree from the Temple University School of Law.

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