Lord Coe’s deceptive response to athletes drug allegations

Don’t be deceived by the theatrically furious way Lord Coe has reacted to the reports in the London Sunday Times (ST) and the German television channel ARD that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships.

The reports are based on the leak of blood test results from the IAAF’s database between 2001 and 2012. They show that one third of the medals in endurance races in the Olympic Games or world championships were won by athletes with suspicious blood readings, possibly owing to doping. The allegation is that this revealed an “extraordinary extent of cheating.”

There is a classic crisis PR response when faced by these sorts of allegations, particularly when they are accurate. These include 1.Try and change the terms of the debate. 2. Challenge the credentials of your critics. 3. Switch discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally. 4. Get your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted.

This reaction is used by government departments, corporations, bureaucracies and almost every organisation when confronted with a hostile story, as I have documented in most of my earlier blogs.

In this case, the lead response was left to Lord Coe.

  1. He tried to change the terms of the debate (using a lot of pretend wrath) and he used the expertise of an executive well versed in the black arts; he used to be chairman – and is still on the board – of Chime, one of Britain’s leading PR companies.

He declared that the reports were “a declaration of war on my sport. There is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug-testing that warrants this kind of attack. We should not be cowering. We should come out fighting.

“Nobody should underestimate the anger at the way our sport has been portrayed. The fight-back has to start here. We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels.”

This sounds like real indignation but this disguises the fact that he was operating extremely cleverly to change the debate. Until that point, the lines were clearly drawn; The Sunday Times and ARD had the moral high ground as they were examining doping allegations.

Coe responds by saying those who accept the ST/ARD report are anti athletics. So, according to him, you are either for us or against us – and if you don’t reject the ST/ARD conclusions, you are betraying your sport.

It is a subtle way to brand the ST and ARD as anti athletics when they are in fact anti-doping in athletics.

Note also the use of pseudo-militaristic language in the call for a fight-back. That means it is not enough for athletes and fans to be neutral about the reports. So, unless you join the condemnation, you are also betraying athletics.

  1. The second strategy is to play the man rather than the ball. Coe was scathing about the two expert analysts used by the ST/ARD, Robin Parisotto and Michael Ashenden. “These co-called experts – give me a break.” He mentioned the names of the IAAF experts and said: “I know who I would believe.”

Again this is a classic PR strategy when you are in a hole and have no other option. You try to demean and denigrate the messenger, rather than provide proper analysis of the specific points they make.

  1. For the third element, which is to condemn the way the information has been acquired and used, has been adopted by the IAAF in its statement http://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/statement-response-ard-sunday-times-anti-dopi

This stated that the “IAAF condemns in the strongest possible terms the distribution, sharing, and publication of private and confidential medical data that was obtained from the IAAF without consent. The IAAF retains the right to take any action necessary to protect the rights of the IAAF and its athletes.”

Note too the comments of Professor Giuseppe d’Onofrio, one of the world’s leading haematologists working as an expert in the field of the Athlete Biological Passport, commented: “Ethically, I deplore public comments coming from colleagues on blood data that has been obtained and processed outside of the strict regulatory framework established by WADA which is designed to ensure a complete and fair review of ABP profiles. There is no space for shortcuts, simplistic approaches or sensationalism when athletes’ careers and reputations are at stake.”

This is again a classic counter to a difficult story – it is an attempt to deflect attention away from the substance of the revelations. We see this all the time, particularly when there are leaks from any government department or corporate organisation. The emphasis is always on the leak inquiry and the betrayal by the leaker rather than any policies or malpractices that have been exposed.

4. Finally, there is the way in which the substance of the response is presented. In this case, we see all typical elements as the statement has the length and convoluted incoherence used by lawyers who want to deceive. The document flops all over the place, mixing hysteria and pedantry. This is again the usual PR/legal approach when it is necessary to create confusion. What they said actually makes their case seem less plausible.

Now I don’t have any expertise in assessing the legitimacy of the ST/ARD reporting. But I do have some expertise in journalism and watching PR companies.

The Sunday Times has a long tradition in exposing sporting corruption – particularly in exposing doping in cycling. And it received similar vilification when it did so.

So anything it reports has to be taken seriously.

It may be that they are wrong on this occasion. But if that is the case, one would expect a point by point statesmanlike rebuttal.

Instead they responded by using every PR trick in the book – and they will probably involve the lawyers, if they have not done so already.

I suggest the following is a good principle to adopt; when any organisation reaches for the dirty section of the PR book and/or its lawyers, its credibility is profoundly diminished.

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