When Maria Sharapova announced she had failed a recent drugs test she shook the tennis and wider sporting worlds.
But she also delivered a master class in how to handle the early stages of a media crisis.
The journalists who had gathered in a Los Angeles hotel for her press conference were expecting the highest earning athlete in any female sport to announce her retirement after a spate of injuries.
Instead she dropped the bombshell that she had tested positive for a banned substance – Meldonium - at the Australian Open earlier this year.
By breaking her own bad news before there were any leaks or social media rumours, and just five days after she was charged with the offence, Sharapova took control of the story and set the narrative.
She fronted up, explained how the oversight happened and took responsibility for her actions. She appeared confident and composed and was open, honest and apologetic.
She said: “I take responsibility for my professionalism in my job and I made a big mistake. I know there will be consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way. I really hope I will be given another chance to play tennis again.
“I can’t blame anyone but myself. I have let my fans down.”
There was even an element of humour – “I know many of you thought I was retiring but if I was ever going to announce my retirement it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet”, she said.
It was a carefully controlled press conference, which was broadcast live on Sharapova’s own website, and journalists were caught on the back foot. One even admitted in a question that he had been taken by ‘surprise’ by the announcement.
Although it can be tempting to simply read from a pre-prepared statement in a crisis situation, Sharapova took questions from the media, which was another shrewd move and helped to enhance the image of openness and honesty.
Her image has of course been damaged by the story and some sponsorship deals have already come to a sudden end. But the situation could have been so much worse if she had not taken control of the story.
Instead of headlines screaming ‘drugs cheat’, Sharapova’s announcement has generated much more sensitive, understanding and factual initial coverage which focused on her ‘admission’. Fellow tennis star Serena Williams praised her for 'showing a lot of courage'.
The story is of course moving on and former World Anti-Doping Agency President Dick Pound called Sharapova's failed drug test 'reckless beyond description'.
She must now find a way to continue to control the story, but there is a lot that can learnt from her handling of the initial stages of the crisis.
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