‘Stealing thunder’ in sports public relations

About the author

Our guest authors are what make PR Place such a vibrant hub of information, exploration and learning.

Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

This article was submitted as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment by Stuart Moffatt, who studied with PR Academy.

In the sports industry, individual athletes and organisations have an ethical predicament when faced with a crisis which is not yet known to the media or public: should they elect to self-disclose the relevant information before a third party exposes it or do they ‘keep a lid on it’ and conceal the information in the hope that it will not become public knowledge?

During a time when the Edelman Trust Barometer reports that the public has increasingly lost trust and faith in institutions around the world, crisis management research has indicated it is ethically the correct decision for individuals and organisations to fully self-disclose information about a crisis and communicate honestly and transparently with all stakeholders who are affected by it.

Yet, in reality, it appears that individuals and organisations are fearful of taking responsibility and self-disclosing information about a crisis because they believe it will lead to lasting reputational damage following unwelcome attention from the media and other interested parties, and that the admittance of potentially incriminating information may also incur legal liability.

Indeed, both individuals and organisations seem hesitant to proactively and openly communicate with stakeholders so long as the possibility exists that the crisis can be dealt with internally without public knowledge and the crisis is considered limited in nature by senior management.

This approach is risky at best and individuals and organisations must realise that the truth will surface eventually, particularly when media and consumers have access to more information than ever before and social media enables rapid and widespread sharing of information worldwide.

In a sporting context, consider USA Gymnastics which was subject to a media investigation by the Indy Star which exposed the governing body for its failure to disclose serious allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse perpetrated by coaches against child athletes to the relevant law enforcement authorities, its stakeholders and the public. The public revelations led to a gymnast reporting a complaint against USA Gymnastics employee Dr Larry Nassar who was subsequently convicted of abusing over 150 athletes and was sentenced to 170 years imprisonment.

Or professional cyclist Lance Armstrong, who continually denied and legally challenged allegations of systematic doping throughout a sustained period of sporting success which included seven Tour de France titles. He was eventually charged by the US Anti-Doping Agency who disclosed that Armstrong had operated a widespread doping regime for several years and was corroborated by the testimonies of former team-mates and individuals close to him.

And then there is the example of the National Football League (NFL) and Baltimore Ravens who were both found to be complicit in failing to openly disclose the full set of circumstances which led to the arrest and charge of superstar player Ray Rice for the serious assault of his fiancée, Jay Palmer. Instead, two security videos were leaked to and published by entertainment website TMZ.com which showed Rice assaulting Palmer and dragging her unconsciously into an Atlantic City casino. The NFL was forced to suspend Rice and his contract was terminated by the Ravens.

As illustrated above, the consequences of failing to self-disclose a crisis which is subsequently revealed by third parties can be devastating. High levels of negative media coverage and widespread public indignation on social media will severely damage their reputation leading to loss of trust and confidence from sports fans and the general public, reduction in investment by sponsors, lawsuits and criminal proceedings, resignation of c-suite executives and the instigation of government inquiries and reports.

The long-term implications for the reputation of individual athletes and sports organisations in crisis should therefore not be taken lightly and the increasing prevalence of crises and scandals in the sports industry led former Labour Party Director of Communications Alastair Campbell to conclude that “sport takes bronze when it comes to understanding the importance of reputation management”.

Therefore, how can public relations practitioners operating on behalf of individual athletes and sports organisations manage crises more effectively to lessen their destructive impact on reputation?

Recent academic research offers evidence for the effectiveness of using ‘stealing thunder’ as an alternative crisis management strategy, which involves an individual or organisation proactively self-disclosing crisis information before other interested parties, such as the media, become aware of the incriminating information.

The usefulness of stealing thunder was first established within the contexts of social psychology and law but has recently been advocated within the research field of crisis communications where the rationale and potential benefits for public relations practitioners have been documented.

According to the research, there are six reasons why practitioners should use stealing thunder to self-disclose information when individuals and organisations become aware of a crisis so that they can mitigate its effects on reputation.

Increase credibility

Individual athletes and sports organisations who self-disclose incriminating information will appear more credible because people do not expect them to willingly divulge major problems and issues about themselves. Rather, they expect that information revealed by an individual or organisation in crisis will be one-sided and biased.

Stealing thunder, however, supplants these expectations, thereby increasing the credibility of an individual or organisation and reducing the reputational damage which they may suffer. Importantly for practitioners, research has also confirmed that media reporters consider them to be a more credible source when they steal thunder on behalf of an individual or organisation.

The importance of maintaining credibility in a sporting context was underlined by the corruption crisis which continues to overshadow FIFA, the world football governing body. Following the arrest of several FIFA executives suspected of widespread corruption, organisational spokespersons, including then president Sepp Blatter, continued to deny the existence of institutional corruption to the worldwide media despite the charges levied on its senior executives by the FBI.

The organisation and its senior leadership lost significant credibility in the eyes of its stakeholders and millions of fans around the world, tarnishing its reputation and thereby reducing FIFA’s ability to retain financial investment by sponsors.

Reduce crisis severity

Practitioners should also be persuaded by research which details that individual athletes and sports organisations can benefit by using stealing thunder to reduce the severity of a crisis as perceived by stakeholders.

In the eyes of the public, the revelation of negative information may be inconsistent with their expectations and they may resolve that inconsistency by changing the meaning of that information. In the crisis context, people may consider the issue or problem as less severe because they expect that the individual or organisation would never voluntarily reveal damaging information about themselves.

Reducing the severity of a crisis within the sports industry is of particular interest to practitioners who wish to protect the reputation of athletes and organisations and minimise the impact of any negative outcomes resulting from a crisis.

Consider the severity of the doping crisis which blemished the reputation and integrity of world athletics following the leak of incriminating anti-doping data by the Fancy Bears hacking group and the subsequent investigation and recommendation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that Russian athletes be banned from competition.

A study commissioned by Sports Business International revealed that the reputation score for athletics among fans in the UK dropped from 30.9% in October 2015 to -1.2% in March 2016 as a result of the crisis, while long-term commercial partner adidas severed its sponsorship agreement with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) three years early costing the organisation an estimated £20m in revenues.

Less attention

There are fears among practitioners that self-disclosing a crisis will lead to significant levels of unwanted attention from the media and the public, but research reflects the contrary: individuals and organisations who reveal crisis information first have been found to receive less attention than those crises discovered by another party.

To illustrate, results of a study which compared media coverage of four high profile individuals in crisis demonstrated that individuals who steal thunder receive less media coverage and that stories and reports about the crisis are framed in a more positive manner. This is explained by commodity theory which, in the context of a crisis, suggests that when information is made freely available and is less scarce, it is less interesting and less valuable to people, including reporters.

The comparable situations of American entertainment icon David Letterman and golf superstar Tiger Woods, who both faced a crisis due to the existence of their extra-marital affairs, help to illustrate this.

Letterman stole thunder and self-disclosed this information during his popular talk show, using humour to make it sound like an amusing anecdote rather than a personal crisis. Woods, on the other hand, remained silent on the issue and waited until the media revealed the circumstances of his personal crisis.

Encouraging outcomes for Letterman’s reputation included much less media coverage, more positive frames in news articles and fewer negative frames. Moreover, stealing thunder was effective in bringing closure to the story and helped the media move onto writing about what happens next for Letterman. Conversely, Woods’ reputation was tarnished by higher levels of intense media coverage which was found to be more negative in sentiment.

Set the tone

By stealing thunder, practitioners can seize the opportunity for individual athletes and sports organisations to set the tone and tell the story in their own way. A significant advantage gained from self-disclosure is the ability to frame the crisis according to their own terms and downplay its significance to the media and stakeholders.

Individuals and organisations who appear to be more remorseful than rational in their communication will also benefit from being perceived by stakeholders as being more sincere, thereby positively influencing post-crisis reputation, a significant outcome by which practitioners may be judged.

A frequently cited success story in sports crisis management concerns the tennis star Maria Sharapova who in 2016 called a press conference to reveal to the media and wider public that she had tested positive for a banned substance at the Australian Open before this information was released by the tennis authorities.

During the press conference, Sharapova fully disclosed the circumstances that led to her anti-doping violation and took full responsibility for her actions. This approach enabled her to own and control the narrative which was delivered in a remorseful manner to the media in attendance. There was little left for the media to reveal or investigate.

Thanks to her self-disclosure, Sharapova was able to tell the story on her own terms, generating positive comments in the media from fellow athletes including Serena Williams and fans, who showed their support using social media hashtags #IStandWithMaria and #WholeWorldWithSharapova.

Influencing consumers

Practitioners can persuade individuals and colleagues to use stealing thunder in a crisis thanks to research which demonstrates that consumers are more likely to buy from you again in the future if you self-disclose the crisis information first, rather than being revealed by an external third party.

Stealing thunder can therefore provide an important advantage for sports organisations who wish to remain profitable and continue to generate revenues from the sale of tickets for events and competitions and branded merchandise to fans.

A question of ethics

When individual athletes and sports organisations experience a crisis, they have an ethical duty to take full responsibility and truthfully disclose crisis information in its entirety to all affected stakeholders.

As such, practitioners should remind colleagues that in times of crisis, stealing thunder enables individuals and organisations to prioritise the needs of their stakeholders and behave ethically.

Stakeholders are more likely to have a favourable response to this approach and consider the individual or organisation as more ethical than ones who choose to conceal information and appear defensive.

A case for stealing thunder

Throughout their careers, public relations practitioners operating in the sports industry are more than likely to be called upon to manage a crisis confronting an individual athlete or organisation.

Should the crisis become public knowledge thanks to the revelations of external parties, individuals and organisations risk huge damage to their reputations following the negative media coverage and widespread sharing of information on social media that inevitably follows.

This article has offered persuasive evidence to advocate the alternative use of stealing thunder in times of crisis over waiting for it to be discovered by external parties, including the media and affected stakeholders. Indeed, the use of stealing thunder to self-disclose incriminating information in times of crisis has been proven to mitigate its negative effects on the reputation of individuals and organisations.

Practitioners advising athletes and sporting bodies can legitimately claim that stealing thunder will make them appear more credible in the eyes of the media and stakeholders, while reducing the perceived severity of the crisis. Stealing thunder will also draw less attention from the media and stakeholders and provide an opportunity for individuals and organisations to more positively frame the crisis on their own terms. Consumers are also more inclined to buy products or services from organisations who steal thunder. Finally, individuals and organisations are considered more ethical by stakeholders when they steal thunder.

In times of crisis, practitioners should be aware stealing thunder is the most effective means to strategically manage and protect the reputation of individuals and organisations.

This article was submitted as part of an assignment for the CIPR Professional PR Diploma with PR Academy.


Academic Research

Arpan, L. & Pompper, D. (2003), Stormy weather: testing “stealing thunder” as a crisis communication strategy to improve communication flow between organizations and journalists, Public Relations Review, Volume 29, Issue 3, September 2003, Pages 291-308 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0363811103000432

Arpan, L. & Roskos-Edwoldsen, D. (2005), Stealing thunder: Analysis of the effects of proactive disclosure of crisis information, Public Relations Review, Volume 31, Issue 3, September 2005, Pages 425-433 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0363811105000809

Brock, T. (1968), Implications of Commodity Theory for Value Change, Psychological Foundations of Attitudes, 1968, Pages 243–275 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9781483230719500167

Claeys, A. & Cauberghe, V. (2012), Crisis response and crisis timing strategies, two sides of the same coin, Public Relations Review, Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 83-88 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0363811111001317

Claeys, A. (2017), Better safe than sorry: Why organizations in crisis should never hesitate to steal thunder, Business Horizons, Volume 60, Issue 3, May–June 2017, Pages 305-311 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0007681317300034

Claeys, A., Cauberghe, V. & Leysen, J. (2013), Implications of Stealing Thunder for the Impact of Expressing Emotions in Organizational Crisis Communication, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Volume 41, 2013 – Issue 3 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00909882.2013.806991?journalCode=rjac20&

Fennis, B. & Stroebe, W. (2014), Softening the Blow: Company Self-Disclosure of Negative Information Lessens Damaging Effects on Consumer Judgment and Decision Making, Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 120, No. 1 (March 2014), pp. 109-120 http://www.jstor.org/stable/42921322?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Jones, E. E., & Gordon, E. M. (1972), Timing of self-disclosure and its effects on personal attraction.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 358-365 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0033724

Richards JR, O., Wilson, C., Boyle, K., Mower, J. (2017), A knockout to the NFL’s reputation?: A case study of the NFL’s crisis communications strategies in response to the Ray Rice scandal, Public Relations Review, Volume 43, Issue 3, September 2017, Pages 615-623 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0363811116301904

Ulmer, R. (2012), Increasing the Impact of Thought Leadership in Crisis Communication, Management Communication Quarterly, Vol. 26, Issue 4, Pages 523-542 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0893318912461907

Wigley, S. (2011), Telling your own bad news: Eliot Spitzer and a test of the stealing thunder strategy, Public Relations Review, Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2011, Pages 50-56 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S036381111100004X

Williams, K.D., Bourgeois, M.J. & Croyle, R.T. (1993), The effects of stealing thunder in criminal and civil trials, Law Human and Behaviour, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 597–609 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01044684

Online Articles and Reports

BBC Sport (2015), Sepp Blatter to resign as Fifa president amid corruption scandal, BBC Sport, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/32982449

BBC Sport (2016), Adidas ends IAAF sponsorship three years early, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/athletics/38188127

Belson, K. (2014), A Punch is Seen, and a Player is Out, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/sports/football/ray-rice-video-shows-punch-and-raises-new-questions-for-nfl.html

Callahan, M. (2013), The night Tiger Woods was exposed as a serial cheater, New York Post, https://nypost.com/2013/11/24/the-night-tiger-woods-was-exposed-as-a-serial-cheater/

Campbell, A. (2017), Sport takes bronze when understanding importance of reputation management, https://portland-communications.com/2017/06/19/sport-takes-bronze-understanding-importance-reputation-management/

Claeys, A. (2016), 6 Reasons Why Organizations Should Never Hesitate to Steal Thunder, Finn PR.com, https://www.finnpr.com/blogs/6-reasons-why-organizations-should-never-hesitate-steal-thunder

Claeys, A., Cauberghe, V. & Pandelaere, M. (2016), Companies Fare Worse When the Press Exposes Their Problems Before They Do, Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2016/08/companies-fare-worse-when-the-press-exposes-their-problems-before-they-do

Clark, D. (2013), The Flawed Art of Lance Armstrong’s Confession, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-flawed-art-of-lance-armstr

Crawford, D. & Haneline, A. (2018), Follow IndyStar’s investigation of USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar from start to finish, Indy Star, https://www.indystar.com/story/sports/2018/01/24/indystar-larry-nassar-usa-gymnastics-investigation/1062120001/

Cronin, B. (2016), Survey | Are sports scandals driving fans away? SportsBusiness International, https://www.sportbusiness.com/sportbusiness-international/survey-are-sports-scandals-driving-fans-away

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (2018), Combatting doping in sport, UK Government, inquiryhttp://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/digital-culture-media-and-sport-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/inquiry/

Edelman Trust Barometer (2017) https://www.edelman.com/trust2017/

Gayle, D. & Gibson, O. (2015), Fifa officials arrested on corruption charges as World Cup inquiry launched, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/may/27/several-top-fifa-officials-arrested

Greenslade, R. (2014), How I brought down drug-taking Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2014/jan/28/lance-armstrong-sundaytimes

James, S. (2016), Top spin: PRs praise Maria Sharapova for controlling message after failed drugs test, PR Week, https://www.prweek.com/article/1386440/top-spin-prs-praise-maria-sharapova-controlling-message-failed-drugs-test

Katz, R. (2015), FIFA Loses More Credibility, If It Has Any Left, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rkatz/2015/12/03/fifa-loses-more-credibility-if-it-has-any-left/#71daa3c674d3

Kelner, M. (2017), General public is losing faith in scandal-ridden sports, survey claims, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jul/05/public-faith-sport-low-corruption-doping-sacndals-survey

Kelner, M. (2018), Remarkable drugs report shatters Team Sky’s illusion of integrity, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/mar/05/team-sky-report-david-brailsford-inquiry

Kwiatkowski, M., Alesia, M. & Evans, T. (2016), A blind eye to sex abuse: How USA Gymnastics failed to report cases, Indy Star https://www.indystar.com/story/news/investigations/2016/08/04/usa-gymnastics-sex-abuse-protected-coaches/85829732/

Kwiatkowski, M., Alesia, M. & Evans, T. (2017), Larry Nassar’s downfall started with an email to IndyStar, Indy Star, https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2017/12/07/larry-nassars-downfall-started-email-indystar/922774001/

Murray, K. (2016), The Sharapova response: well served crisis PR, Holyrood Partnership, https://www.holyroodpr.co.uk/sharapova-response-well-served-crisis-pr/

Labiba Abdel Naby, I. (2017), Managing the reputation of FIFA: The case of the corruption crisis, Public Relations Journal, Vol.11, Issue 2 https://prjournal.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/FIFA-Corruption.pdf

Piedra, M. (2016), Why the ‘Sharapova response’ will go down as a crisis communications blueprint, PR Week, https://www.prweek.com/article/1386760/why-sharapova-response-will-go-down-crisis-communications-blueprint

Reuters News Agency (2017), US lawsuit seeking $100 million from Lance Armstrong heads to trial, The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/14/us-lawsuit-seeking-100-million-lance-armstrong-heads-trial/

Roan, D. (2015), Leaked IAAF doping files: Wada ‘very alarmed’ by allegations, BBC Sport, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/athletics/33749208

TMZSports.com (2014), Ray Rice Elevator Knockout: Fiancee Takes Crushing Punch (Video), TMZ, http://www.tmz.com/2014/09/08/ray-rice-elevator-knockout-fiancee-takes-crushing-punch-video/

Social Media

Ruptly (2016), LIVE: Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova to make ‘major announcement’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_u5Jkaho3Qw