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Paula Radcliffe: The Next Steps

Paula Radcliffe is understandably angry.

She has been a beacon on professionalism and integrity throughout her long and distinguished athletics career.

Now both are being called into question.

Why?

Because of a sloppy and careless question asked by an MP – under Parliamentary privilege – in a Commons Select Committee.

Paula’s getting it mostly right as she fights back through the media.

But the flaws in her responses are grabbing many of the headlines such as:

“Radcliffe: I’m no drugs cheat”

While stating very positively what she has done, she’s falling into the trap of denying what she hasn’t done.

Here’s the worst one:

“I categorically deny I have resorted to cheating…”

Of course that makes for a great headline.

But it’s a misrepresentation of the message she wants to get across.

All her career, Paula Radcliffe has spoken out against drug cheats.

Now she’s talking about “resorting to cheating” herself.

I have the greatest sympathy with Paula who is a wonderful athlete and ambassador for her sport.

She has needed to be world-beating in her communications skills this week…but has fallen short.

So here’s three big tips when your reputation is under attack:

a) Be proactive

b) Be positive

c) Be personable and polite

Let’s take them one at a time.

a) Be Proactive

Pink Elephant Comms - Paula Radcliffe - Paula 3

Being proactive is crucial

When you get on the front foot, you take control.

That’s true of sport – and it’s true when defending yourself.

Paula could have got on the front foot some weeks ago when the Sunday Times published results of “abnormalities” in blood samples taken from British athletes.

But she feels strongly that personal data should be kept personal as the complexity of it can easily be misinterpreted by the uninformed.

So she kept quiet…and unfortunately allowed critical voices to grow louder.

The tipping point was when Jesse Norman MP asked this:

“When you hear that…potentially…the winners and medallists of the London Marathon…that British athletes are under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping…when you think of the effect on young people…what are your emotions about that?”

Paula Radcliffe is the only British winner of the London Marathon since 1996.

Despite his subsequent denial on Twitter, Mr Norman had unwittingly (or otherwise) implicated Paula Radcliffe.

Jesse Norman

So she at last got on the front foot and issued a 1700-word statement.

That’s the moment she turned reactivity to proactivity.

But she would have been much better served by doing this weeks before.

As she hesitated, Mr Norman’s question filled the vacuum.

And for a few vital hours, his accusations filled the airwaves and websites.

Now on the media training courses and presentation skills courses we run mainly from our Glasgow-based studios, we have a simple rule for this:

A lie unchallenged becomes the truth.

That only changed when Paula chose to challenge what she regards as a lie.

b) Be positive

Being positive is the next step.

And here Paula got most of it right, saying:

“I am 100% confident that the full explanations and circumstances around any fluctuations in my personal data on a very small number of occasions will stand up to any proper scrutiny and investigation.”

Indeed her lengthy statement was robust and positive.

But then came the killer line:

“I categorically deny I have resorted to cheating…”

It’s just so tempting to repeat the damaging words of the unspoken accusation.

But the truth is that only Paula is talking about her “resorting to cheating”.

Pink Elephant Comms - Paula Radcliffe - Paula 1

What should she have said?

“I have only ever won fairly – through hard work, dedication and being completely clean.”

It’s harsh – but headline writers will always pick up on a negative before a positive statement.

So keep it positive – all the time!

c) Be personable and polite

Here Paula scores very well indeed.

In a BBC interview – while clearly upset at the implications of Jesse Norman’s words –  she remained both polite and personable throughout the interview.

In many an interview I’ve done with athletes during our Pink Elephant media training courses, I’ve asked if they’ve ever taken drugs.

The answers are normally defensive – when in fact, it’s the perfect opportunity to be direct and condemn drug cheats.

Middle distance runner Mo Farah – who continues to excel on the track – lost his cool at a news conference some months ago when his coach was under attack…despite an absence of allegations against him.

“You guys are killing me” he told journalists.

In fact they had just turned up to hear what he was saying!

Mo Farah Pink Elephant Communications

His normal personable and polite persona gave way to irritation and agitation.

The journalist is offering a platform to under-fire athletes like Mo and Paula.

They have to step on to that platform and react personably and politely – to get their message across in the right manner to the audience, rather than the journalist.

As Paula explains, athletes are unable to prove that they’re clean.

Tests can only prove that athletes have cheated.

But I wish her well in challenging apparent misinformation and misinterpretation surrounding her blood tests.

Protecting your reputation is a lifelong job.

You could say it’s a marathon rather than a sprint.

At least in that regard, Paula Radcliffe will be better prepared than any of us.

Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills training firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: nshepheard / Foter / CC BY-SA; Jon Skilling / Foter / CC BY-NDaxel_belger / Foter / CC BY-ND; Foter / CC BY-SA

 

10th September 2015 Featured in: Blog By:

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