What can we learn from the tennis star who didn’t want to talk to the media?

It is not often tennis features in this media training blog.

But Naomi Osaka’s decision not to speak to the media after matches during the French Open produced an avalanche of media coverage.

And it served up crucial questions about media interactions that go far beyond the tennis world.

If, like me, you don’t follow tennis and were not that aware of Osaka before this story, allow me to try and fill in some of the gaps.

She is a four-time winning major singles champion and is one of the sport’s rising stars.

Ahead of the tournament, she announced she would not be talking to the media because she needed to protect her mental health by avoiding negative questions from journalists.

"I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," Osaka said.

"We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

Tennis authorities reacted by fining her and threatening her with expulsion if her silence continued.

Osaka subsequently withdrew from the competition and added she would “take some time away from the court now".

The result? A messy situation where one of the sport's stars felt unable to compete in a showpiece event - one of the competitions that moves it away from a fairly niche audience to something bigger.

But what can we learn from this?

 

Narrative

Let’s put the mental health aspect of this story to one side temporarily.

The great irony of the Osaka story is that a subject that centred on the tennis star announcing she would not be taking part in press conferences resulted in vast media interest.

There has been exhaustive coverage. It generated headlines across the world, fuelled opinion columns, and filled airtime. And, it is not lost on me that we are adding to that commentary with this media training blog.

Some of that coverage was supportive. But much of it was angry. The Telegraph, for example, accused her of “diva-esque behaviour at its worst” and said she had now “reached a level of fame where authenticity gives way to absurdity.”

And Piers Morgan, with all the predictability of night following day, was again rolled out to perform his angry man routine, labelling the tennis star a “brat” and suggesting her earnings had caused her ego to grow to “gigantic proportions”. Interesting words from a man who just a few months ago walked off the show he was presenting because he didn’t like what was being said about him.

Whatever your view, it is a powerful reminder that avoiding talking to the media doesn’t stop the story.

What it does mean is you have no control or input into what is being said. And other voices will fill the void.

That’s why we always stress on our media training courses the importance of organisations and individuals accepting interview bids. There are only a few situations where we think it is not a good idea to talk to the media, which we explored in this blog.  

 

Negative questions

No one enjoys facing negative questions.

And Osaka is not the first tennis star to show discomfort about them. Johanna Konta, Britain’s number one, memorably accused a journalist of “patronising” her after a Wimbledon defeat in 2019, adding “I don’t think you need to pick on me in a harsh way.”

In the same year, Maria Sharapova rebuked a reporter for asking “a silly question” and responded to another question by simply saying “Is there another question?”

But awkward, uncomfortable questions are always going to be asked by the media, regardless of whether you are a tennis star who has just suffered defeat or a CEO announcing job losses.

The key is not to view them as personal insults. Often these questions are obvious. And a journalist would not be doing their job properly if they did not ask them. They are attempts to gain the information and insight their audience want.

Rather than fearing them, practice responding to them. The best way to do this is on a media training course with a current working journalist tutor. But it can also be done with a colleague or friend.

 

Content

Being in the media spotlight can be tough. But media attention goes hand-in-hand with sporting success. The more you achieve, the brighter the spotlight shines on you.

Some are comfortable with the exposure. Others get used to it and a few struggle with it throughout their careers.

It is, however, something the sporting world appears to be getting better at preparing athletes for. We are now regularly providing media training for the next generation of potential stars, often introducing them to interviews and press conferences at a young age.

Footballers have often been maligned for offering little more than the same tired phrases in media interviews.

But there is a new generation emerging that is confident talking to journalists, willing to share their stories and experiences, and openly discuss the highs and lows. Relations between the England football team and the press pack have rarely seemed better.

The difficultly with tennis is it is an individual sport. There is no teammate to hide behind when things are not going well.

But ultimately, whether you are an individual athlete, a member of a team or you have a more regular job, interviews typically look for similar content. We want to learn about the people behind the story.

We want to hear about their motivations, vulnerabilities, ambitions, disappointments and experiences.

 

Mental health

But what about the mental health issues Osaka raised in her statement?

There are people far more qualified than me to discuss this.

But, media interviews can be gruelling.

If you are a CEO managing a crisis media management incident, it can be challenging to front press conferences and give countless interviews.

It can be equally exhausting to do a series of interviews on a positive topic.

This is why we always talk about the importance of organisations ensuring they factor resilience into their comms plans and having several spokespeople, trained and experienced, who can face the media in both good and bad times.

It is also crucial to understand the concerns and fears of those spokespeople. Some may prefer print interviews and find they feel anxious about giving live broadcast ones. Others may feel uncomfortable about talking to a reporter they cannot see.

And there are likely to be some who come across as being confident, but who may not be able to cope with the intense pressure that comes with fronting a crisis response.

There has been a growing focus on wellbeing and mental health in the past year. And it needs to be factored into spokespeople rotas.  

 

Crisis

The other aspect of the Osaka story we need to focus on is the way it was handled by the tennis authorities.

The grand slam tournaments fined her for her initial refusal to “honour her contractual media obligations” and released a lengthy statement outlining further sanctions she could face if her approach continued.

It said: “We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences.

“As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.”

Of course, a star player refusing to speak to the media is something of a crisis for the sport, particularly coming at a time of the year when it typically gets more coverage.

And as a former sports journalist, I can think of little worse than athletes opting for sanitised social media posts, rather than giving interviews.

But this seemed a heavy-handed approach to someone discussing mental health concerns. Where was the empathy and concern?

Essentially saying ‘if you don’t talk, you can’t play’ does not suggest that mental health is being taken seriously.

It was only later when French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton spoke that we got something closer to the required tone, saying: “First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year.”

The key for any story like this is for organisations to show they are listening to the concerns being raised. And they care about those discussing them.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our practical crisis communication and media training.

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