Unsporting Crisis Communication: the Blame Frame

Rio de Janeiro – August 9th, 2016. NOC * NSF publicly announces that Dutch turner Yuri van Gelder (better known as “the Lord of the Rings”) is banned from the Olympic finals. The press release indicated that van Gelder ‘grossly exceeded’ the ruling norms and values within TeamNL (the Dutch Olympic team) and the Dutch Gymnastics Federation (KNGU).

In the press release the incident is described as the following. After placing himself for the finals, van Gelder left the Olympic Village against the rules and returned very late in the morning. He admitted that he consumed alcohol while he was away. Leading figures of TeamNL and the KNGU – Maurits Hendriks and Hans Gootjes – decided to send him away. Without further elaborating on what actually happened, expletives such as ‘he left us no other choice’ were tossed in.

What makes this case extra poignant for all involved parties is the fact that van Gelder’s sporting career was a turbulent ride already. In June 2009 van Gelder got caught using cocaine. Van Gelder got suspended for a year, lost his job and forfeited the right to take part in the Olympic Games. From 2014 onwards the tide seemed to turn as he got selected to partake in the Olympic Games of 2016 – his last chance to fulfil his Olympic dream.

van Gelder balancing out his private life (source: http://bit.ly/2mprpyZ)

Taking into consideration his earlier missteps regarding substance abuse, the public soon started guessing and speculating what could have happened. Most fans were utterly shocked that drinking a few beers a week before the finals would actually take place, cost him the chance to compete for a medal. Hendriks and Gootjes remained silent after the press release.

In the press release Van Gelder was framed as being guilty of behavior that was impermissible. The public did not perceive the case as a complete story though. Framing word choices such as ‘impermissible behavior’ were not supported by statements that deal with justifications, causes and consequences. A central theme that can be detected within this frame is the repeated emphasis on how van Gelder grossly exceeded the ruling norms and values.

What seemed to have motivated this blame frame are the negative repercussions for stakeholders as a result of their association with van Gelder. Lack of commitment induced a break in the trust of the KNGU, TeamNL and NOC * NSF. From a public relations perspective, simply dropping van Gelder does not take into account the complexity of the situation. The simple explanation that van Gelder violated the rules guiding sport performance overlooks the impact on the fans.

Considering the general profile of van Gelder, withdrawing him from the finals resulted in character assassination. Recent research shows that managing fan expectations requires sophisticated PR skills. Balancing between the sport and the private sides of a sports celebrity requires scrutiny and delicacy, which this press release lacked.

Other sport-related crises provide an alternative strategy: diversion. This strategy includes the impact on fans – they did nothing wrong, but are the ones hurt most. By connecting with the fans an organization can limit the overall damage to the sport, the stakeholders and other team members. Because as it wasn’t for them, there was no crisis at all.

About the author:

Esmee de Vries – Here to unite strategy with creativity, vision with philosophy and numbers with people. 

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