What we can learn from the Naomi Osaka and French Open communication crisis

Aisha Dukule

Senior Manager Aisha Dukule shares key lessons from the Tennis Tournament’s leadership public response to Naomi Osaka’s mental health issues.

Early this year, the world’s No. 2-ranked tennis player, Naomi Osaka, announced that she would withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon tournaments due to her mental health issues. The organizations’ response to Naomi’s decision created a public outcry, an outpouring of support for Naomi, and even calls for a boycott of the French Open. Here’s what I think went wrong.

Navigating the climate

The onset of Covid-19 has increased mental health issues across the world, especially in young adults. There is also increased awareness and sensitivity to the mental health issues many have had to battle during the pandemic and other major national events over the last 16 months. As a public figure and an athlete in the spotlight, Naomi Osaka’s decision was both ground-breaking and personal to the millions also suffering from similar challenges.

A sensitivity to these issues from organizations is not just expected but outright demanded by the public. The tournament leaders aimed to carry on business as usual, stating that their approach to Naomi Osaka’s debilitating symptoms was intended to be ‘pragmatic’.

No one should be put in situations worsening their mental conditions. Not even superstar tennis players. By publicly sanctioning Naomi Osaka and scrutinizing her symptoms without providing solutions, the organizations showed a lack of regard for their players and creating a safe workplace. The tournaments missed out on an opportunity to create awareness and position their brand as an advocate for mental health.

The organizations should have accepted her decision and used the opportunity to provide increased access to mental health resources and support. It is increasingly important that organizations prioritize the safety and well-being of their employees and ensure that those commitments are communicated both externally and internally.

Mixed Messages 

Following Osaka’s decision not to attend the news conference after her first-round victory, the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments released a joint statement explaining their decision to fine her.

In the statement, the leaders claim that the mental health of all players is of the ‘utmost importance’ to the Grand Slams, but after unsuccessfully attempting to engage with Osaka the decision was made. The organizations uses the statement to not only announce Osaka’s $15,000 fine but also warn her of tougher sanctions and possible future suspension from Grand Slam tournaments should she continue to ignore her media obligations.

The decision taken by the organizations clearly shows that Osaka’s mental health was not a priority over the development and growth of the sport and the fanbase. The initial messages of the statement are contradictory at best.

The statement then reads,

‘We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement.  As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”

By attempting to frame Osaka’s decision as an ‘unfair advantage’ over other athletes, the Grand Slam leaders communicate a misunderstanding of mental health issues. Osaka’s anxiety and depression do not equate to stature, beliefs, or achievement.

Also in the letter, the organizations insists it has significant resources dedicated to player well-being. It would have benefited from also listing what those resources are in the statement. Without it, they echo empty diversity and inclusion claims.

The message that the organizations wants to drive gets lost in the statement’s many superficial overtures. When responding to an issue it is always better to write a press statement that’s shorter and to the point with a brief explanation.

Understanding your brand’s weaknesses

Like many of the iconic athletes that came before Osaka, (Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams), they have become bigger than the sport itself. Their brands are astronomical with personal stories that resonate with millions. In a short amount of time, Osaka has become one of the most popular and highest-paid athletes in the world. Her underdog persona, coupled with political activism and fashion sense has won hearts all over the globe.

The organizations made a strategic mistake by taking a confrontational approach. As the French tennis federation director-general is quoted in the press framing Osaka as difficult and casting doubt on her experience,

“We didn’t manage to get directly in contact with Naomi. We tried to do that, we went to her practice court, we tried to engage with her several times, we even wrote a letter to her privately before we made the public statement from the Slams. So we wanted to have that dialogue and for us, it was not really possible to understand how she was, whether she was defending a cause or if she was personally affected,”

Unsurprisingly, the media took on a David vs Goliath narrative, pitting Naomi against the mammoth sports organizations, which has been accused of racism and sexism in the past. Their responses only made Osaka’s plight even more empathetic.

This case study exemplifies how it is necessary to understand the current climate on issues before engaging in a response. In this case, the organizations temperature was off. Media crises don’t happen in a vacuum and success often depends on the ability to navigate these variables in mind. Equally important is messaging crafting. Your statement might be your only opportunity to ‘set the record straight’ or redeem itself in a damaging situation. Ensure that messages are concise, empathetic, and consistent. Lastly, playing on your brand’s strengths and accessing its weakness can allow organizations to better anticipate their media coverage. Before making a strategic plan try to anticipate how news coverage will play out depending on your brand’s positioning.

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