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Whether or not you follow cricket, you will almost certainly be aware that members of the Australian team have recently been caught doing something very naughty with the ball.
‘Sandpaper gate’ as it has become known, plunged the country’s governing body, Cricket Australia, in to full blown crisis media management mode and propelled the sport from the back pages to headline news around the world.
The incident has resulted in hefty bans being handed out to captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and inexperienced player Cameron Bancroft. Coach Darren Lehmann has resigned and sponsorship deals have been terminated.
As BBC reporter Dan Roan put it, this has been ‘arguably the gravest crisis in Australian sports history’.
While there have been plenty of things that Cricket Australia has got wrong in its handling of this incident, the press conference given by Smith, when he returned to Australia from the South African tour, was not one of them.
Here are seven crisis media management lessons you can learn from it.
Face the media
When you are caught up in a crisis incident and are facing intense media attention, it can be tempting to hide away from the media and hope, often in vain, that it will all blow over.
Smith could have addressed the story through social media posts – a tactic initially employed by his colleague Warner (although he later also gave a press conference).
But instead he chose the braver option and faced the media.
This showed far more of his character, contrition and remorse than ever would have come across in social media posts and instantly softened people’s stance on him and his actions.
‘Sorry’ can be a hard word for people and organisations to say during a crisis media management incident.
It’s worth remember that during the recent Facebook crisis, for example, when Mark Zuckerberg eventually broke his silence on the issue – with a post on the social network – there was not a word of apology.
Smith on the other hand started with a simple but effective apology to his teammates, cricket fans and Australians.
And he apologised a further four times during the five minute press conference.
There was little doubt that in this press conference Smith took full responsibility for the ball-tampering scandal.
“I want to make it clear that as a captain I take full responsibility,” he said. “I made a serious error of judgement.
“It was a failure of leadership, my leadership. I’ll do everything I can to make up for my mistake.”
If there’s a positive to be drawn from the terrible example set by behaviour in South Africa it’s the example of Steve Smith yesterday. A clearly broken man, Smith understood the damage caused, accepted responsibility and showed genuine remorse. Restored some faith. #ownedit— Alister Nicholson (@AlisterNicho) March 29, 2018
Even when questions teed him up to pass some of the blame to vice-captain David Warner, widely regarded as the chief protagonist, he refused to budge from his stance. He said: “I don’t blame anyone. I’m captain of Australia. It’s on my watch.”
Often in these types of instances, the person will read from a prepared statement and you wonder if it really is their words that are being said, or those of lawyers and PR advisers.
Smith certainly read from a prepared script in the early stages of the press conference, but the words sounded like they belonged to him. ‘I’m gutted’, he told the gathered media and later added ‘cricket is the greatest game in the world’.
This added to the impression of sincerity and genuine remorse emanating from the press conference.
Often in press conferences we see the spokesperson ushered away from proceedings before journalists have had a chance to ask any questions.
It is something I did at times in my comms career and it is something I still regret – it simply doesn’t look good.
Smith took a few questions during his press conference at Sydney Airport, and it helped to create an impression of transparency.
In fact he delivered some of his strongest quotes in his responses to those questions and it was certainly the time where he showed the most emotion.
Sports stars crying in press conferences and interviews is nothing new – Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher welled up recently during interviews after he was caught spitting at the occupants of a car.
And Smith certainly brought the emotion to this one, particularly when he spoke about the impact on his family.
This may have triggered some further social media mocking, but it also helped present him as someone who understands the enormity of the situation and who is genuinely sorry for his actions.
Australia’s ball-tampering cricketers are the focus of much sympathy this morning, after the heartfelt and painful apologies by Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith. @SarahStewart_9 is LIVE. #9News pic.twitter.com/IkaN29jXul— Nine News Australia (@9NewsAUS) March 29, 2018
I’m not suggesting CEOs and senior leaders should break-down during a press conference, but it is important they come across as human and show that they really care when they address the media during a crisis.
As a final thought, if I was the comms manager of Sydney Airport, I’m not sure I would have agreed to my backdrop being used in this press conference.
Would you want your logo being seen behind a man whose actions had led to him being widely vilified? It’s worth remembering even the Australian Prime Minister has been addressing the media on this issue since the story broke.
Association matters and I’m not convinced Sydney Airport needs to be linked with this incident via its branding.
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