Four golden rules to communicate under pressure in sports

Working in sports events’ communication sometimes means dealing with delicate situations, as the many accidents of the recent days in cycling remind us. To face the unpredictable, you cannot improvise

Sports in the post-lockdown era have restarted with a load of inevitable doubts and uncertainties. Cycling, in particular, is a sport whose quintessence has always been proximity - rather than distancing - and not used to the idea of ​​"closed doors," besides the logistical challenges due to the constant movement of hundreds of people. The several COVID-19 positive tests of the last few days are creating concerns also for the Tour de France, destined to get going with very little certainty about what it will be.

Despite the environmental circumstances, post-COVID cycling confirmed the values we had seen before the outbreak. The major players on the world scene regained their positions at the top of the bunch. Unfortunately, the first few weeks back on the roads also brought a high number of injuries, some of which resulted from particularly serious accidents.

One point to discuss could be the current state of mind of riders and teams, called to play a compressed season constantly endangered to be cut short, with the responsibility of securing a contract (or continuity) for the coming year. Effort overloads and tensions certainly have had some impact on those circumstances, as do other factors.

However, from our standpoint as communication people and cycling event specialists, the accidents of recent days - Evenepoel, Jakobsen and Schachmann above all - have drawn our attention to the task of managing these events in internal and external relations.

Over the years, we have had first-hand experience of many delicate situations, including the drone crashed on the Canalone Miramonti slope at 2015 3Tre Madonna di Campiglio, fortunately stopping a few centimetres from an unsuspecting Marcel Hirscher.

In this regard, here are some lessons gained over many years of experience in events. Because to face the unpredictable, you cannot improvise.

  1. Get ready beforehand

Preparation is the key to effective crisis communication. Not to the imponderable - of course - but to its management.

Limiting the risks and arranging all protection and prevention measures is the organization's responsibility, even if there are circumstances (the Campiglio drone is a prime example) in which the case goes beyond what is foreseeable. Accidents and fatalities can also relate to specific responsibilities, and that needs to be taken into account by who is in charge of communication.

We can't know what will happen in advance, but we always need to know who to talk to in case it happens. Who is the OC contact responsible for checking or approving a press release on a sensitive topic? Who is the doctor responsible for providing the diagnosis of a possible injury? Who can make decisions in these moments?

When a serious circumstance occurs - even more so if live on screens around the world - there is not much time to evaluate: you need to act, and know how to do it. This does not only apply to those involved in communication: anyone in a position of responsibility must know who to activate - and how - in the event of sensitive situations.

2. Communication must go on

One of the consequences of unpreparedness may be falling into the temptation to disappear: suspending communication until further notice, not knowing what to say, or afraid of making a mistake.

Whatever happens, communication must not be interrupted. The press office staff must remain available for journalists' requests; the social network channels must continue to update on events' progress. It is not simple, but it is necessary - especially by analyzing the reasons and alternatives.

The first aspect is linked to point 1. An organization that stops communicating in coincidence with a serious or unexpected event transfers a negative feeling, as the unwillingness of confronting uncomfortable truths.

The second, and no less important, is that dozens of channels and ways exist to make your voice heard nowadays: the void of an official feed leaves the field open for rumors of all kinds, starting with from social networks. And this is very dangerous.

Therefore, like the show, communication must go on.

3. Don't give in to peer pressure

Sometimes, the frenzy to communicate and the pressure exerted from the outside can lead to spreading information that is not sufficiently verified, or coming from sources that could be reliable but not competent enough to be reported as official.

It might seem obvious; it is less so than it looks. When assuming the role of official voice, there is no room for "seems," "probably," "rumor has it." An official spokesperson must clarify things, which is why his/her role is so delicate.

The example could be the news about a crash reported by RadioCorsa, an indispensable and reliable reference for anyone following a race: the eye of those in the race is invaluable for understanding the contours of a situation, and RadioCorsa's voice is deputy to report the facts, but not in the position to provide a diagnosis. In these cases, it is better to indicate the source of the update (only if reliable: RadioCorsa, the rider's team) and provide further news as soon as official doctor's reports become available.

In short: during an event, it is necessary to communicate concretely, providing only the available information, reporting the wait for further updates, and tell the circumstances as they are, until those in charge give a competent interpretation. It's doctors' job to issue medical reports, diagnoses and prognoses.

4. Manage the exposure

It is inevitable: in every organization, some roles are more exposed to the public. OC chairs, directors and general secretaries are repeatedly enquired by the media and public opinion, even more when something very significant or impactful happens, for better or for worse.

For them, as for those involved in communication, disappearing is not an option. Silence communicates and makes a lot of noise, particularly in serious circumstances. Furthermore, it is not easy to do that: journalists want a representative leader's comment, a legitimate need that must be respected.

When the situation allows, it is better to prevent any criticality and organize the organization leader's presence at the press conference.

There are clear upsides in that:

1. It simplifies the management of impromptu requests: differing every comment to the press conference reduces the risk of incomplete or unreasoned quotes collected on the sidewalk or in a mixed zone.

2. It allows coordination with the communication manager, and gives the necessary time to acquire all the elements to take positions in public.

3. It provides an impression of greater transparency: the organization takes a public position, and does so by placing everyone on the same level and exposing personally.

In general, even where the press conference is not an option, it is better to try to rationalize the moments of communication to avoid giving statements in inopportune or uncomfortable moments, but having care of not denying access. Finding the right measure between these two needs is part of what an efficient press office does.

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