If Paula Radcliffe was trying to draw attention to the drugs allegations made against her she couldn’t have done a better job.
The world’s fastest ever female marathon runner was front page news in the Times, the Guardian and the Independent, featured on the back pages of every paper and was reported prominently on every news bulletin. She didn’t quite upstage the Queen, who was celebrating becoming our longest-reigning monarch, but she wasn’t far off.
Some observers felt it was a misguided strategy. Radcliffe was not mentioned by name at the hearing held by the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee, which was investigating allegations made in the Sunday Times of widespread doping in athletics, which had allegedly been covered up. During the session, the chairman Archie Norman asked David Kenworthy, chairman of UK Anti-Doping: “When you hear that the London Marathon winner, potentially the winners or medallists at the London Marathon, potentially British athletes, are under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping… how do you feel about that?”
The context is important. Radcliffe and her advisers clearly felt that the Conservative MP’s words could only be interpreted as referring to her – no other British runner has won the London Marathon – and because they were made in the House of Commons, with the benefit of parliamentary privilege, she could not sue for defamation.
Radcliffe could have ignored the remarks. No journalist could have explicitly referred to her by name without risking legal action. The story would have been a one-day wonder – even if Mr Norman was clearly looking to make headlines.
But one of the first rules of crisis management is to evaluate the extent of threat to your reputation. Over-reaction is always a mistake, but failing to react can be just as damaging, particularly with today’s fast-moving news agenda.
If you do choose to go public you then need to set the agenda on your own terms. Radcliffe did this by issuing a substantial 1,700 statement. It was a detailed rebuttal, not simply a two-sentence denial.
This meant that the story was reported on her terms: “I’m no drugs cheat” in the Daily Mail; “By linking me to allegations damage done to my name can never be fully repaired” in the Guardian; “Paula Radcliffe ‘categorically’ denies cheating” on the BBC online. Her words made the headlines, not the words of her accusers.
When Mr Norman went on Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the issue further, the interviewer was hostile and the Tory MP resorted to claiming his remarks had been taken out of context – always a weak position to adopt.
That’s not to say Radcliffe has seen off her accusers. Cynicism runs so deep in athletics – as it does in cycling – that the stain of suspicion is not easily removed. Now that I’m a PR consultant, helping companies and high-profile individuals with crisis management, I have a different perspective from that of a journalist. But one thing hasn’t changed: my belief that the best way to deal with a crisis is complete transparency.
That’s what Radcliffe has tried to do by giving detailed explanations of the three “flagged” samples taken during her career, which led to the allegations aired in the House of Commons. Whether you choose to believe them or not probably depends on your perspective – it’s in the eye of the beholder.
But Radcliffe knew the stakes were high. She had two things to defend: her reputation in the sport, and her future earnings as a pundit and ambassador. She decided attack was the best form of defence and, in my view, she got it right.
Tim Jotischky is a senior consultant at reputation management agency PHA Media and former business editor of the Daily Telegraph and sports editor of the Daily Mail