The world’s highest paid female athlete, tennis player Naomi Osaka, made headlines after announcing she was withdrawing from the French Open following a whirlwind of statements between her and the Grand Slam tournaments regarding her decision to defy tournament rules and skip post-match press conferences. As public relations professionals, there are lessons to be learned on how to avoid a media controversy like the one experienced by both parties in the past week.
A Failed Rally After Osaka’s Serve
The French Open and the rest of the Grand Slam tournaments handled Osaka’s initial boycott of the press conferences poorly. Osaka cited her mental health as to why she was skipping all press conferences during the tournament, even though she was aware that it was tournament policy to attend.
After Osaka was absent from her first presser, the French Open released a joint statement with the Grand Slam tournaments announcing she would receive a $15,000 fine and possible expulsion from future tournaments. The official account for Roland-Garros, where the French Open is being held, also received backlash for a since deleted tweet mocking Osaka’s decision to sit out from the tournament’s press conferences.
Osaka admitted in a second statement that her initial message could have been more clear, and she was not suggesting that the media, or the French Open, were her enemies, even stating that “…the press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt).”
Instead, she was vulnerable about her struggle with depression and social anxiety since the U.S. Open tournament in 2018, when she defeated Serena Williams in front of a crowd of spectators that were vocally pulling for her opponent.
The Grand Slam organizations then shifted the tone of their messaging to that of support, understanding, and cooperation in a statement released through the U.S. Open’s Twitter account on June 1st, in which they stated “We intend to work alongside the players, the tours, the media and the broader tennis community to create meaningful improvements.” The statement seems to have been released partly in response to the bad publicity their initial messaging received as well as to acknowledge Osaka’s transparency about her mental health and their desire to make impactful change without compromising the media.
How It Should Have Played Out
Press conferences and interviews are an important aspect of being a public figure, especially if that public figure is the highest-paid female athlete in the world. Osaka would have benefitted from consulting with a publicist or PR team before making her initial statement, as it was widely interpreted as her condemning the media for asking questions about athletes’ performances, which is what reporters and journalists are paid to do as the public has the right to information concerning public events, especially of this caliber.
In this scenario, the publicist should work to serve Osaka’s needs to the best of their ability. Whether this means undergoing media training to help make her more comfortable in front of the press, scheduling press conferences when she is in the right headspace to speak publicly instead of immediately following a match or some other strategy that helps to protect her mental health and well-being while also abiding by the tournaments’ media interview policies.
The French Open’s joint statement could have initially been more sensitive to Osaka’s vulnerability and openness about her mental health struggles, especially since her status as a public figure brings extensive publicity to both the topic of mental health and the sport of tennis.
The initial statement only briefly acknowledged Osaka’s mental health struggle and went on to antagonize Osaka for breaking a code of conduct. This positioned the organization, as well as the other Grand Slam tournaments, as insensitive towards Osaka’s mental health, invalidating her experience and the potential shared experiences of tennis fans and viewers worldwide, on the tail end of Mental Health Awareness Month, nonetheless.
The Grand Slams’ statement should have been less defensive and focused more on supporting Osaka and other athletes who face mental health issues, all the while supporting the media’s right to information and access to athletes during these events. They should have recognized that their audience widely supports Osaka and tailored their initial messaging in a different way to support both parties.
While it is true that no player should receive special treatment, it is also important to position your organization in support of mental health awareness, especially when it concerns one of the most famous and respected tennis players in the world. By doing so, your organization shows support for more than just Osaka, but for the extensive number of followers who may also face challenges with mental health. This creates a positive image of your brand and creates loyal brand followers through this connection.
Although mandatory participation in press conferences is crucial to generating publicity and excitement around the sport of tennis and should remain a part of major sporting events, the tournaments and Osaka could have worked out a separate agreement behind closed doors as to not compromise either the athlete’s well-being or the media’s access. The lack of communication between the athlete and the tournaments led to a week of high-stakes tennis to be tarnished by an ongoing controversy.
The way both Osaka and the Grand Slam tournaments addressed these events provides important lessons for PR professionals on media relations and publicity. As public figures and organizations that receive international attention, it is incredibly important to consider your audience and be aware of the way your words may be misconstrued when releasing a public statement in order to control the narrative around a crisis situation and maintain a positive public image.
Gabby Macrina is a Public Relations and Content Development Intern at Flackable, an award-winning public relations agency representing financial and professional services brands nationwide. To learn more about Flackable, please visit flackable.com.