carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Public relations and crisis management in sport

This week BBC aired their Panorama investigation on the links between the now-suspended coach Alberto Salazar, Nike’s now-defunct Oregon Project, and one of the most famous and renowned British track athlete, Sir Mo Farah.


While watching the programme, the storyline reminded me of a number of other documentaries on doping in sport; in particular ‘The Armstrong Lie’ that centred around Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, and 9.79* that centred around the 1988 Seul Olympics 100m final and Ben Johnson’s fall from grace.

But what, specifically, remind me of these other two documentaries? And how do I connect them? For me, it all comes down to how public relations (PR) and crisis management (CM) operate in sport, especially when athletes are involved in transgressions - in this case doping allegations. William Benoit (2015), in his theory of crisis management, focused on the 14 different ways that communication specialists, and in particular PR practitioners, seek to minimise damage or restore the reputation to organisations and (personal) brands.

One line of defence aims to evade responsibility where athletes claim to have forgotten specific events or moments - as in the case regarding Mo Farah’s L-Carnitine injections before the London Marathon. Here the strategy positions the user as a mere human, who easily forgets things. ‘Reducing offensiveness’ is another line of defence used in both Armstrong and Farah’s cases; Armstrong claimed that the entire peloton was probably violating doping rules, while Farah maintained that ‘everything’ was done within WADA’s limits.

But what really interested me was that in all three documentaries simple denial - the most fundamental strategy in Benoit (2015) - was always the first line of defence. Lance Armstrong denied multiple times any sort of doping violation throughout his entire career. The same is true for Mo Farah who – without being interviewed for the Panorama investigation - provided a statement, through his representatives, claiming that he is one of the most tested athletes in the world. How is that linked to the 9.79* documentary? In this case it was not Ben Johnson’s admission of doping violations that caught my attention, rather it was the assertion of Carl Lewis’ representatives that he was a clean athlete as he was tested multiple times over his successful career.

In a world where information is paramount, controlling – aka anchoring (being the first to set the agenda) and framing (providing the way of describing that behaviour) - the narrative becomes one of the key battlegrounds for safeguarding an individuals’ public image. At the same time, given that dopers and innocents use the same defence, ie., tested multiple times and never got caught doping, and only one is using it cynically, how are we best to detect that cynicism? How can we believe that the true ‘spirit of sport’ is being upheld by all involved? Or are we witnessing the centrality of PRs and CM specialists within mainstream sport? Worse, might all of this represent an illustration of the post-truth era where truths, half-truths and lies completely lose their objective meanings, and where ‘winning at all costs’ is the only valid reality in sport?

Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Sport

Renan is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business and Marketing, Course Leader for MSc Strategic Sport Marketing, and Researcher in The Research Centre for Social Justice in Sport and Society.