How to Play the Game - the PR Game - When It Comes to Celebrity Athlete Media Interviews & Features

How to Play the Game - the PR Game - When It Comes to Celebrity Athlete Media Interviews & Features

By: Natalie Mikolich

As the future of American tennis and its biggest hopeful to be the next U.S. women’s tennis star, one would hardly want the media NOT to be on their side of the court when it comes to reporting on them and doing big features.  For Sloane Stephens though, following the release of her story in Elle magazine’s August issue coming out in advance of the US Open when all eyes are on tennis, it is clear that not all media reporters are taking a liking to her candid personality and what others refer to as her  “authenticity.” 

Instead, some are trying to expose her weaknesses (like any opponent across the net would try to do) when it comes to doing media interviews and “playing the PR game,” and seemed to be exactly what reporter Lizzy Goodman was getting at in her Elle feature “Is Sloane Stephens the Future of American Tennis?”

(To read more from Elle, here is the full article online:

From the beginning of her article, the reporter points out how she thinks Sloane is a “celebrity in training” and describes her first impression from meeting the future of American women’s tennis as:

“When I arrive in Los Angeles to meet this newly anointed princess of American tennis (she’s now ranked No. 2 among U.S. women), I’m at some level expecting Grace Kelly; instead, I get Cher Horowitz.”

For those who don’t remember, or never saw the American movie comedy Clueless, Cher Horowitz’s character is described as “a good-natured but superficial girl who is attractive, popular, and extremely wealthy. A few months shy of her sixteenth birthday, she has risen to the top of the high-school social scene.”

Throughout the Elle article on Sloane, the reporter not only reveals MANY details about her gynecology experiences and personal issues that we all could’ve gone without knowing (to say the least), but she continuously points out the image she believes Sloane is portraying to the public with statements such as:

“Comically unaware of the image she’s presenting: Privileged tennis starlet struggles with plebeian task,” when referencing Sloane attempting to pump gas in her new Range Rover during their day trip together and “casual” interview.

And, as if to try and rub salt in the wound, the reporter concludes the article with last paragraph stating:

“Apparently, Stephens is figuring out how to play the game—the PR game, that is. Learning how to lock it down off court is perhaps essential to learning how to open up on court.”

Although, eventually this article will likely be forgotten by tennis fans and non-tennis fans who read it, along with the tennis media who cringed and then analyzed it, it not only raises the question of “what is the fine line of authenticity and media-trained responses when it comes to celebrity athletes doing media interviews?” but also “what are a celebrity athlete’s rights when being interviewed by media reporters?”

To help us answer some of these gray areas for publicists working with celebrity athletes or entertainers alike, and to better guide athletes in the right direction when it comes to being interviewed for big-time media features, Sports Lawyer and FORBES Sports Business Contributor, Darren Heitner, helps us take a closer look at some questions we had for him about this:

1. What are a celebrity athlete’s rights (if any) when being interviewed by a media outlet?
The most important right of the celebrity athlete is the right to decline the opportunity to speak which is the most valuable tool for them.  The potential of stating “no comment” and opportunity to remain silent is something that can work against an athlete because silence is often perceived as guilt of the situation, but often times when athletes are in a position of no power and comments are likely to be perceived negatively, staying silent is the best thing.

2. Is everything celebrity athletes tell reporters 100% fair game to use in their story?
Reporters interviewing athletes can share everything from the interview unless what is stated is considered to be “off the record,” but the athlete must say ahead of time that something is “off the record” otherwise it is fair game for them to use.  The athlete also needs to understand that some reporters are compensated and awarded for the amount of page views an article receives which can cause controversy, so they need to be careful about what they say because things can easily be construed in a way they don’t want it to be.

3. If a celebrity athlete tells the reporter something is “off the record” and then they run it, can they do anything about it after the fact?
First, athletes shouldn’t just speak to any reporter saying they are writing a story, and they should be careful that they are doing an interview with a reporter who has dignity and a reputation for being trustworthy, it helps too if the reporter is backed by legitimate publications.  For “off the record” information, there is nothing an athlete can do to make sure that reporters don’t attribute “off the record” information to them in the article other than call out the journalist once the article runs.  This wouldn’t be good though for the reporter’s credibility, and it is rare for reporters NOT to comply with an athlete’s wishes.

4.What are a celebrity athlete’s rights once a story runs and it includes inaccurate or slandering information, can they pursue any action against the media outlet?
If the reporter runs what the athlete said in the interview, there is nothing they can do once the article comes out.  If they take what the athlete said and turn it around then the athlete or their publicist can ask them to correct it, but if it was the athlete said it is wrong for the athlete or their publicist to ask the reporter to change what is running in the article.

5. Do celebrity athletes have any rights when it comes to telling a media outlet that they don’t want them to run a story after they did the interview with them?
There are two major issues with this. First, does the athlete provide the reporter consent to use the content or stated words in the context of the article? And two, is the reporter properly documenting what the athlete is saying?  Outside of that, there are not many rights for the athlete or their publicist to say something needs to be changed or even ask them to pull the story.  Journalists have their own integrity they wish to strive for, and if athletes say something on the record and they wish to use it, there is no legal recourse for the reporter.


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