Serena Williams Serves Up 2 Lessons for PR Pros

Serena Williams has a history of speaking her mind and shooting straight from the hip. However, she may have crossed the line in a recent Rolling Stone interview.

During the interview Williams was asked for her take on the Steubenville rape case. Her response was considered by many people to be insensitive, at best. “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re 16 years old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you don’t take drinks from other people,” Williams told Rolling Stone.

As the fallout began to descend upon Williams, she responded with what could be considered a non-apology and a poorly executed deflection:

"What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved—that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written—what I supposedly said—is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame."

Williams alleges that her words were skewed and not her own. However, Rolling Stone reporter Stephen Rodrick recorded his interview with the tennis superstar, and it appears that he quoted her accurately.

Williams tried to muscle her way past a sincere apology by leveraging her status and gender. Not only that, but she also failed to take ownership of the situation and apologize for her words as they were stated.

The Williams episode offers PR professionals (and their celebrity clients) two important lessons:

  1. Think about your words carefully—especially when speaking to the media (the microphone is always hot). What is troubling about Williams’ comments is that she made them to a reporter and not off-the-cuff. While it may not be excusable, it is understandable when a high-profile individual slips up in a casual setting. But Williams, who has been in the media spotlight for years, should have known better.

  2. When you make a mistake, take ownership. When you make a mistake and you are aware of it, admit it, apologize and move on. Reframing, deflecting or denying can prolong a bad situation, and leave you in worse shape than if you had just come clean in the first place. 

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Follow Caysey Welton: @CayseyW

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About Caysey Welton

Caysey Welton is Associate Editor at PR News and Folio: Magazine. He spent more than a decade as a chef and restaurant professional before switching tracks to pursue his passion for media and communications. Caysey has a deep interest in converging media landscapes and ecosystem disruptors, public relations and crisis communications. He holds a BS in Media, Culture and Communications from New York University.

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