You can say what you like about Maria Sharapova – but she does employ a very classy public relations team.
They ensured that she put over her pretty fragile defence against drug taking allegations as effectively as possible; and they did as much as possible to protect the Sharapova brand, which she no doubt hope will be a major money earner long after she has ceased to be a star tennis player.
Let’s take a careful look at team Sharapova’s tactics.
Make no mistake; everything she did at the press conference on March 7th was aimed at taking control of the agenda. Every image, word and gesture was carefully calculated – interesting too that a video of the press conference is on her website – http://www.mariasharapova.com/press-conference-march-7-2016/
And it is worth contrasting her approach and that of others facing similar accusations.
First, Sharapova made the announcement herself in the full glare of a press conference, ensuring her chosen words were the ones that lead the reporting; on most occasions these types of story leak out, leaving the accused always on the defensive.
It was clever too because it appeared to have the openness of a press conference; but reporters did not have a chance to research the drug in question, so the few questions asked were banal in the extreme. For example, no-one asked if she was still taking the drug.
Secondly, note the amount of time and effort spent on getting her look correct. She wore a sober black top with long sleeves and black trousers.
What a contrast with her usual image. I cannot remember any similar outfit worn by her before. On formal occasions, she sometimes wears black but usually with a relatively short skirt, and most of the images of her include short skirts, crop tops and bare arms.
These photos of Sharapova went round the world, defining a new sober image that was reflected in her words.
Then we come to her statement which was a masterpiece of its own kind – brilliantly structured and worded to bring together a series of often conflicting messages.
This was a clear attempt to present herself as open, honest and contrite and ready to take responsibility. This is again new ground – many athletes in a similar position try to give the impression that anything that happened was not their fault.
Don’t though be distracted by the language she uses. Sharapova is also trying to say it is not her fault, but is doing so in a much cleverer way.
Look at her statement.
She starts by saying she has failed a drug test and takes “full responsibility.” To which one is meant to respond: ‘How refreshing that someone is taking responsibility rather than denying everything or passing the buck.’
However her initial remarks are followed by a series of mitigating circumstances designed to make us feel how noble she is to take responsibility when she is not responsible at all. She does this by mentioning rule changes (that the drug has only just been put on the banned list) and that she used the drug for serious health issues.
She then says how important it is to be open and honest, as she always has been in the past about many things. Yet, this begs the point that this statement was carefully structured and everything she has done in the past has helped to protect and promote her brand.
She then talks about responsibility and professionalism and admits that she made a “huge mistake.”
There are all kinds of different images floating round here. There is the need to take responsibility, which shows her in a good light but also this mention of a “huge mistake.” She is subtly denying that she is a drug cheat and also getting our sympathy by talking of a mistake – after all which one has not made a huge mistake in our lives.
Then she says she has let her fans down. But the subtext is that she has let them down by making a huge mistake, which is not really an admission of anything. This is a classic case of the non-apology apology.
And she concludes by saying she knows she faces consequences, adding a plea for another chance.
So, what do we have here? We have the image of a woman taking responsibility for what happened, apologising to her sport and her fans and accepting that there is a price to pay – and there is no doubt that these provided the best media sound-bites.
But there is a clear subtext; that she is human and made mistake due to a whole series of mitigating circumstances and therefore should receive another chance. In other words, she has done nothing really culpable.
In summary it is a very clever mix of the rhetoric of contrite guilt and the hard-nosed substance of innocence.
It is not for me to comment on her case – plenty of reporters will be asking more substantive question than they did at the press conference and sponsors will be deciding whether to follow the example of Nike and suspend her contract.
But don’t be fooled by the images and words Sharapova had used. They are but the first blows in a long campaign to preserve the commercial viability of brand Sharapova.