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Photo by Alexander Kirch/EyeEm/Getty
Dec 19, 2017

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

How to win a trial by media.

Britain’s most successful road cyclist is in the fight of his career. After Chris Froome’s victory in the Vuelta a España in September, he took a drug test; in December it was revealed that he had an excessive level of an asthma drug called salbutamol in his system. We can now expect a long legal case, and at some point in the coming months, Froome’s medical and legal team will present their explanation for this finding—and any evidence they might have—to cycling’s governing body, the UCI.

Most people reading the headline “Tour de France Champion Froome Failed Drug Test,” reached one conclusion: In a sport notorious for doping, Chris Froome, a four-time Tour de France winner, is just the latest cheat. And who can blame them? That’s what the headlines suggested. Even the people who read on to the third or fourth paragraph probably didn’t change that view by much. The media has to be concise, and most readers like to have the most important information first. Few people make a habit of going into the granular detail. As a result, people like Chris Froome are considered “guilty until proven innocent.” Even if a news outlet wants to do nothing except report the news, a trial by media often develops—and often ends quickly.

Chris Froome is asthmatic. He takes salbutamol to manage his condition. During the latter stages of the Vuelta a España, he was given extra doses of the drug by his Team Sky doctor because he says his asthma had worsened. His team says the doses were inside the legal limit set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The drug test suggests otherwise. However, there are many factors that can affect the concentration of the drug in a urine sample: interaction with food, interaction with medication, dehydration and timing, for example. Experts say the drug is performance-enabling for asthmatics, but not performance enhancing. The drug test failure was considered an “adverse analytical finding,” but not an anti-doping violation.

Froome and his team will have to explain the excess of the asthma drug in his system. Maybe he has a good reason, maybe he doesn’t. But when you see the details of the case, it’s clear that Froome is not a cut-and-dried cheat. And that’s why, in the reputation management world, controlling the narrative is so important. If the people in the dock allow the media to tell their story, important information will be omitted. That’s no disparagement of journalists; it’s not their job to tell the story the way the subject would like it to be told. But it does mean that the defendant in this trial by media has to be proactive. He or she has to get the bottom of their own case, to the best of their ability, anticipate any questions they might be asked, decide what information they want to broadcast and then be forthcoming with the media. And, though it shouldn’t be this way, it’s no use in a situation like Chris Froome’s to wait until after the case is resolved. By that point, after an untold number of “Froome Failed Drug Test” headlines have beaten themselves into the public’s brain, there will be many people whose minds, sadly, have been made up. They’ll say that he got off on a technicality or had a good legal team. They’ll say it’s notoriously hard to prove someone is a drug cheat or that Froome’s medical exemption was dodgy.

Lawyers and PR or media consultants often disagree about how to act in situations like this. Lawyers care first and foremost about winning the case. PR and media consultants know that sometimes, a winning legal case doesn’t mend a reputation. But if Froome and Team Sky take pains to disseminate the most important details of the case—that there were no steroids involved, there is barely any evidence to suggest the asthma drug to be performance-enhancing and that there are countless reasons why someone might be over the limit—then they can make sure they get a fair public hearing. That isn’t the same as replying only to requests for comment or releasing only one or two statements. It means being candid, friendly and showing some emotion. It also means being fast (something Chris Froome should be used to). People may choose not to follow the case after the first few weeks. Anyone under fire should try to have their say as quickly as possible, before the media settles into a pattern of reporting.

A headline released only this week read, “Chris Froome Fights to Save Career After Failed Drugs Test Result.” When your reputation is on the line—as a professional athlete, a CEO, a politician or someone else— stakes are always high. Burying your head in the sand doesn’t work. Neither does optimistically hoping that people will forget about it eventually. In the trial by media, always mount a full defense.

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