PR Specialization

When Tragedy Strikes in Sports – Making the Right Call with Your PR Plan

Waking up to the news that the star pitcher on your baseball team and one of the best on the field in Major League Baseball (MLB) died from a horrific boat crash in the middle of the night was something no one expected on the morning of Sunday, September 25th, 2016. Rocking the airways and news channels from all of the local media outlets in Miami to ESPN Sports Center and every outlet in between, stories spread like wildfire on September 25th about the tragic death of the Miami Marlins’ 24-year-old pitcher Jose Fernandez with an outpouring of messages and mourning on twitter from fellow MLB players, sports reporters, the MLB and MLBPA (Major League Baseball Players Association), fans and even those who never ever knew Fernandez (including myself).

In sports, on the playing field, and in sports PR, we aim to always be prepared for anything that comes our way and to “expect the unexpected,” but can we really ever expect to lose a young athlete with one of the brightest careers and futures ahead of him like we did with Fernandez?

Specifically in sports PR, we often discuss being ready and prepared as best as possible for crisis situations to occur at any given moment, but how are we ever supposed to plan and be prepared for the loss of a marquee athlete in the middle of the season like with the passing of Fernandez.

In addition to the Fernandez family dealing with the most difficult days they will ever face, so did the entire Miami Marlins organization on September 25th when they held a press conference with all of their team in attendance within hours of learning about the devastating death of their star pitcher.

For those of us immersed in our sports PR practices, here is what we learned from the Miami Marlins, and how they handled the situation that no one – whether a family member, friend, league, team or PR practitioner – should ever have to plan for:

  • Have a plan: similar to crisis PR, having a plan and being as prepared as possible ahead of time are helpful to organizations so they are not starting from the beginning. Having a plan in place includes things like a chain of command and a communications tree of messaging both internally and externally and someone who is familiar with it within the organization.

According to Crisis PR Expert Kevin Sullivan who was the former White House Communications Director, former SVP of Corporate Communications for NBC Universal, VP of Communications  for NBC Sports and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, and author of “Breaking Through: Communications Lessons From the Locker Room, the Board Room & the Oval Office,” he stated:

 “While few teams ever have to deal with heartbreak of this magnitude, we have seen a number of similar tragedies over the years (such as with the Cardinals and Angels) and you can prepare in advance from the standpoint of – if an active player is killed during the season, what do we do?”

 Sullivan also added, “it may not be possible to have a detailed line-by-line plan, but to give some thought to the basics, so you are not starting from scratch.“

  • Designate a spokesperson: As with all crisis situations, when those in sports and with teams are faced with tragedy, a part of your plan should include who the designated spokesperson is as well as those who speak with the player’s family and community.

“For something like what happened Sunday, you need to make some key people in your organization available – the owner, general manager, manager/coach and possibly some key players,” said Neal Gulkis, former NFL PR veteran for 25 years with the Saints, Dolphins and Browns and a member of the NFL PR staff for eight Super Bowls and eight AFC Championship Games. “But you can’t just throw them up there.  You need to prep them with many of the questions that are likely to be asked.  Emotions come naturally though and you really can’t tell someone how to feel.”

 In Sunday’s press conference held by the Miami Marlins shortly after the news broke about Fernandez, several from their organization spoke to the media with the entire team in attendance standing behind them to show their respect.

 “When you talk about a tragedy like this, there are no words. There is no playbook,” Marlins President David Samson said via the Miami Herald. “We will play tomorrow.”

  • Keep your composure: let’s face it, keeping your composure in sports PR can be extremely difficult and challenging at times but is something we must learn to do if we are going to excel in our designated roles. Often times, we are not only the ones media turn to for questions they want answered, but communication directors are also the point person for those within an organization and keeping calm under the most stressful situations and difficult times is crucial.

“Internally, people will look to the PR people to gauge the true level of a particular situation.  If they see you unraveling, it doesn’t exude a great deal of confidence.  Externally, you are the face of the organization, and media and others will pick up on little things in your demeanor,” added Gulkis who was the former Director of Media Relations for the Miami Dolphins and assisting the Dolphins communication team the day of Fernandez’s tragic death.

“Remember, keeping your composure will allow you to be successful in making critical decisions.  Also 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.” 

  • Integrate social media in your communication plan: with the evolution of social media into traditional sports PR practices, social media can never be overlooked today and especially in sports. Since social media is where much of the news breaks first these days, we must make sure our messaging is consistent on our social media channels.

“The Marlins’ notification on twitter was simple, but heartfelt.  Canceling the game was the right call,” commented Sullivan.


Natalie P. Mikolich is the Founder of npm | pr (www.npmpr.com) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Entertainment and Sports Section 2016 Chair. In addition to providing public relation services for top global sportswear and equipment companies like Prince Tennis, Natalie has worked with some of the leading sports and entertainment agencies such as Blue Entertainment Sports Television (BEST) and Lagardere Unlimited Tennis.  Natalie has represented many world class professional and Olympic athletes including Greatest Doubles Team of All-Time Bob & Mike Bryan, Seven-time Grand Slam Champion and former WTA World #1 Justine Henin, 18-time Grand Slam Champion Chris Evert, 2012 London Olympic Bronze Medalist Marlen Esparza and 2014 CrossFit Games Winner Camille Leblanc-Bazinet along with Major League Soccer Medical Coordinator Dr. John Gallucci. Prior to this, Natalie was former NCAA Division I Team and SEC Conference Champion a part of the 2002-2003 University of Florida Women’s Varsity Tennis Team and a top five nationally ranked USTA junior tennis player. Follow Natalie on Twitter @npmikolich

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