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Ethically Responding to Tragedy

Published on February 5, 2020, at 10:56 p.m.
by Jordan Axel.

What do tragedy and sports have in common? They bring unity to an otherwise divided world.

Courtesy of Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

No one is ready to hear the gut-wrenching news that someone they love and admire has passed away — especially when it is out of the blue.

As public relations professionals, “our clients turn to us as experts and expect us to recommend a strategy for how to move forward in times like these,” said Pamela Chvotkin, a sports marketing/event communications professional.

Although the death of Kobe Bryant is at the forefront of the world’s mind, this is not the first time in sports that a communications department has had the difficult task of responding to an unexpected tragedy. For example, PRsay released an article highlighting the Miami Marlins and how the team’s communications staff handled the sudden death of Jose Fernandez in 2016. Here are some best-practice methods to consider.

Have a plan
PR professionals are wired to expect the unexpected and respond to a crisis in a timely manner. Loss of life is a highly sensitive situation and should always be handled on a case-by-case basis. However, having a general plan for responding to the death of your client will give you a framework to build from. When constructing a plan, for tragedy specifically, “a lens of sensitivity is vital,” said Audrey Ferguson, a public relations student at The University of Alabama, during discussion in a Sport and Entertainment Marketing and Promotions class.

Designate a spokesperson
When an athlete, coach or sports executive dies, especially someone as prominent as Kobe Bryant, the public is looking for someone to provide comfort and closure. Fortunately, there are many options for a key spokesperson within sports organizations, so the immediate family can have the privacy they deserve. Once you have identified your spokesperson, preparing talking points ahead of time will help the speaker articulate their emotions in the midst of grief.

Courtesy of Reina Koyano via Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram

Keep your composure
As public relations specialists, we serve as liaisons between the public and our clients. In sports, we often deal with the media to get our message out.

“Something worth remembering is that when you are addressing the media or others, it’s not just what you say which will resonate but also how you say it. A serious situation calls for an equally serious tone when speaking,” said Neal Gulkis, former NFL PR veteran.

Integrate social media in your communication plan
Now more than ever, being present on social media is crucial. According to Pew Research Center, 20% of adults in America consume news through social media. In addition to strategically planning social media posts, “make sure that everything pre-scheduled is appropriate,” said Pamela Chvotkin. For example, Planters paused its #RIPeanut campaign following the death of Bryant.

Remember, it is fellow human beings we are discussing. Keep calm. Practice empathy. Have respect. Be mindful.

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