Running the Gauntlet: Communicating Your Way into—and out of—Sticky Situations

If you thought you or one of your clients had a bad run in media coverage recently, think again. Or, more specifically, think of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose record-breaking 800-meter sprint at last month’s World Athletics Championships prompted an investigation into whether she was actually a he.

If that wasn’t bad enough for the girl, news that the results would take weeks to get fueled a maelstrom of humiliating coverage as to how it could be so difficult to figure out her sex. In the weeks that followed, media from around the world weighed, with some calling for the IAAF to back off its investigation and others arguing that Semenya should be disqualified.

Here’s a quick run-down of the situation. Under International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) rules, if ever there is suspicion about an athlete’s gender, that athlete may be asked to undergo a medical evaluation. In Semenya’s case, the 18-year-old runner’s stunning performance (she crushed her rivals—and previous records), coupled with her noticeably muscular—some would say masculine—physique, resulted in a formal investigation into her gender. If she was revealed to be genetically male, initial reports said, she would be stripped of her medal and excluded from further competition.

Well, today CNN reported that two media outlets—one in the UK and one in Australia—obtained the results of the gender tests. Both reported the same conclusion: that Semenya is a hermaphrodite. Once again, she is in the spotlight, facing unknown consequences for a situation that is out of her control.

The reason I bring it up in the context of a discussion surrounding PR is simple: How does one manage communications around such a delicate—and global—issue? Semenya’s so-called “agency,” in this case, appears to be Makhenkesi Stofile, Sport and Recreation Minister. CNN reported that he said he was “shocked and disgusted” at the treatment that Semenya has received from the media, the IAAF and the world.

I’d have to agree with him. None of the parties involved in the situation have done much to protect her privacy. Then again, at this point, where do you even begin managing the media coverage? If you think about it as, say, a reputation or brand crisis, and if Semenya was your “client,” what would you do?

By Courtney Barnes

  • http://www.twitter.com/emjaydoesPR matt

    Protecting Castor’s dignity would be first and foremost on a list of priorities.

    I would want to work towards opening up discussions about gender and human rights. Castor could become an educator and break down existing gender barriers and discrimination.

    This is an issue that has gone far beyond what is fair and unfair in sport.