Expecting The Unexpected: Ten Tips For Crisis Management In Sport

Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton


Sheppard Mullin is a full service Global 100 firm with over 1,000 attorneys in 16 offices located in the United States, Europe and Asia. Since 1927, companies have turned to Sheppard Mullin to handle corporate and technology matters, high stakes litigation and complex financial transactions. In the US, the firm’s clients include more than half of the Fortune 100.
Everything in sports is magnified -- from personalities and culture, to economics, to government and private sector oversight.
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Everything in sports is magnified -- from personalities and culture, to economics, to government and private sector oversight. The extraordinary level of scrutiny inherent in sports can mean the difference between success and failure. The industry's popularity and expansion provides tremendous opportunities, but it also magnifies the impact of bad behavior on and off the field. Public relations crises continue to rock the sports world, and this is unlikely to change, particularly in the cancel culture in which we live. Social media's ubiquity virtually ensures that controversies in the sports world will not go unnoticed. The difference between disaster and surviving the news and social media cycle unscathed usually has as much to do with the organization's response as it does with the underlying behavior.

Sports entities can, and do, survive even the worst crises without long-lasting harm, but the key often lies in a strategic and proactive approach crisis management.

No. 1: Develop a crisis response team before the crisis

While some crises come out of left field, most can be predicted and prevented. It is imperative for industry leaders to maintain a deep and evolving understanding of potential sources of reputational challenge. Outspoken talent? Upcoming labor negotiations? Controversial sponsor? Problematic executive? All of these issues are common in sports but can only be proactively managed with an ear to the ground. Industry leaders should monitor current trends and talk to key stakeholders to understand where a crisis might come from and minimize or defuse it.

Equally critical is the need to develop a crisis response team in advance. This will vary by company but should include key internal stakeholders with executive decision-making authority related to communications, finance, talent, and operations. The team should also include external advisors, including attorneys who can advise in a privileged environment, as well as PR professionals to work in tandem with attorneys on crafting response plans before and during and after the crisis.

No. 2: Know what constitutes a crisis

Whether it's an allegation of harassment or discrimination, particularly against senior executives; when the organization is accused of having a "toxic culture," whether it's an issue involving on or off the field conduct that has both personnel and reputational issues; when an employee or athlete goes "rogue" on social media, it's critical to distinguish between business as usual and events that can become a crisis. Many of these situations require both short- and long-term responses by the crisis response team, and often require parallel work streams of investigations, scenario planning, internal risk mitigation, and communications.

No. 3: Understand exposure

A crisis often poses not just a risk of reputational harm, but also legal, regulatory, and even criminal exposure. Worse, responding to one form of risk may increase another. For instance, while an organization may wish to transparently explain the circumstances underlying a crisis, such statements could jeopardize an investigation, breach a contract, or provide ammunition to regulators. The legal and PR professionals the organization has (hired can evaluate competing forms of exposure.

No. 4: Move quickly -- but not hastily

Time is of the essence in a crisis. Many sports organizations have faced hefty consequences for doing too little, too late. The public expects, and should generally receive, a prompt response when a crisis emerges. However, rather than rush to speak publicly for the sake of doing so -- which can compound the problem -- organizations should make their first words meaningful to start turning the tide of public opinion.

No. 5: Prepare transparent, consistent messaging

Crisis messaging is critical but must often go beyond one-line denials to be effective. Vague messaging can result in mass speculation, keeping the crisis in the news. Instead, work with PR professionals to prepare messaging that is as transparent and detailed as possible without creating undue legal risk. And ensure that stakeholders are committed to the message to avoid confusion.

No. 6: Manage sponsor impact

The sports world depends heavily on sponsors to survive. One of the first orders of business for organizations facing a crisis should be to contact sponsors and provide as much information and assurance as possible to ensure continued engagement. Of course, properly handling a crisis can ensure that a sponsor never faces sufficient public pressure to depart.

No. 7: Keep employees informed

Organizations in crisis often focus so much energy on fans and the media that they look inward too late. Employee retention and morale are key to surviving a crisis unscathed. Employees, like other stakeholders, should be given as much information as feasible and kept updated. HR teams should be trained to appropriately address employee questions and concerns.

No. 8: Monitor the plan and be flexible

Once implemented, leaders should monitor the public and internal impact of their strategies to ensure effectiveness. However, even the best-laid plans require change as a crisis develops, particularly as narratives and news cycles shift. Accordingly, organizations should prepare to be nimble and creative, pivoting as necessary.

No. 9: Keep playing the game

The sports industry is not one that can pause to address a crisis. Barring a truly catastrophic event, seasons and events must proceed. Continued play can be critical to preserve fan and sponsor engagement. Thus, affected organizations should devote sufficient resources to maintaining operations at as high a level as possible until the crisis passes.

No. 10: Plan for next time

Each crisis presents an opportunity for growth. Once the immediate storm is over, organizations should thoroughly review the lessons learned -- what went wrong, what went right, and what was effective. Organizations should then take proactive steps to bolster weak spots and formalize response mechanisms to better handle whatever may be next.

Ian Carleton Schaefer and Lindsay Stone are partners in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP's Labor & Employment practice group in New York. Bryce Tom is a managing director at Rubenstein, specializing in crisis and reputation management.

Originally published in Sports Business Journal

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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