Case Studies

How NOT to be a brand ambassador and PR sports influencer: Ask Novak Djokovic

Greatness is a responsibility.

The disgrace and deportation of the world’s number one tennis player Novak Djokovic from Australia has some valuable lessons for PR and marketing professionals and corporate sponsors. It demonstrates that being an elite athlete or megastar entertainer is not all it takes to be a brand ambassador.

The world idolizes its superstars so a multi-billion dollar industry has been carved out of celebrity PR and influencer marketing. However, there are golden rules and character issues to being a celebrity endorser and sports ambassador.

In the heat of the excitement of the moment, marketers and sponsors sometimes forget these guidelines and the long-term importance of character, trust and public conduct.

Novak Djokovic is probably the greatest tennis player on the planet.  But he has forgotten a bigger life lesson that greatness is a responsibility. His conduct and disrespect for law and authority at the 2021 Australian Tennis Open and complete disregard of Covid health guidelines led to his disgraceful deportation from Australia.

Before examining the PR, branding and marketing lessons from the Novak Djokovic fiasco, here’s a quick recap of how he got to this point

The road to brand reputation damage (and deportation disgrace)

The Australian Open organizers had clearly stated two months in advance that ALL players are required to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus for the tennis tournament. No exemptions.

The unvaccinated Djokovic found a way to go around this strict guideline and somehow managed to get an exemption. These are the key dates:

Dec 16: Djokovic tested positive for coronavirus.

Dec 17: The tennis star said he attended a charity event in Belgrade and social media posts showed him maskless handing out awards to children. He claimed in a statement that he did not get his PCR result until after the event- this was a lie.

Dec 18: Djokovic broke Serbia’s isolation rules for a photoshoot and interview with L’Equipe newspaper. He said in his statement that he “felt obliged to go ahead and conduct the L’Equipe interview as I didn’t want to let the journalist down.”

Dec 24-25: A video posted on social media on Christmas Day showed him playing street tennis in Belgrade.

Jan 1: Djokovic told his agent to fill out his travel declaration to enter Australia. The declaration stated that he had not traveled in the 14 days prior to his expected departure from Spain on Jan 4- Another lie.

Djokovic, therefore entered the country on potentially fraudulent grounds.

Jan 2: Djokovic was issued with a border travel permit by the Victorian government. He was seen greeting a fan on video in Marbella, Spain.

Jan 4: “I’m heading Down Under with an exemption,” Djokovic announced to the world in an Instagram post shortly before flying from Spain via Dubai to Melbourne. The impending arrival of the vaccine skeptic prompted a huge backlash in Australia, which has undergone some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 lockdowns and where hospitalisation rates have hit a record high.

Jan 5: Djokovic touched down at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport on board Emirates Airlines.

Jan 6: Australia’s Border Force detained the tennis star in a room at the airport overnight, denying him permission to enter the country and notifying him of their intention to remove him for not following the Covid-19 health guidelines.

Jan 7: Djokovic faced 72 hours over the Orthodox Christmas holed up in a hotel for asylum seekers after a court agreed to hear his appeal against his cancelled visa.

Jan 10: In a virtual court hearing that saw pranksters hijack the live stream and protesters pepper-sprayed outside his lawyer’s office, Djokovic was freed from detention.

Australian immigration minister Alexander Hawke said he would weigh the use of personal powers to deport him anyway. Just after midnight, Djokovic tweeted a photo of himself practicing at Rod Laver Arena.

Jan 11: Social media posts and eyewitness accounts to Reuters contradicted Djokovic’s immigration form declaration that he did not travel for 14 days before entering the country.

Jan 12: Djokovic posted a statement on Instagram apologising for the mistake on the form and for leaving quarantine to do a photoshoot.

Jan 14: Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to cancel Djokovic’s visa for a second time, saying he may pose a health risk.

Jan 15: Djokovic returned to the immigration detention hotel where he was previously held.

Jan 16: Judgement day and deportation. Djokovic’ lost his appeal case and he got a deportation order The unanimous ruling by a three-judge Federal Court bench dealt a final blow to Djokovic’s hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open.

Jan 16. 11 p.m.  Federal agents escorted him and his team from the business lounge to the gate, where he boarded an Emirates flight bound for Dubai. The flight took off shortly before 11 p.m.[1]

7 branding and PR lessons.

  1. Thou shall not lie!

It is said that you can’t carve fine art out of rotten wood. And the truth always finds a way to come out eventually, no matter how well and long you try to hide it.

Novak Djokovic lied about his covid 14-day travel plans and he lied again about not being aware of the date of his test results. These lies eventually worked against him.

He has previously been tagged with the phrase – “doing a Djokovic.” Have you ever had to apologise, even when you didn’t really feel like it?  This is the meaning.

  1. Stay humble.

Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Aliko Dangote, and many other great leaders extol the importance of staying humble.

Djokovic seemed to have been operating in a different world. Even in the midst of the Australian legal battle he was still posting and bragging on social media.

  1. Mind your social media.

Novak Djokovic

Business people and celebrities must be careful about their digital footprints, and ensure what they say is consistent with what they post.

There were inconsistencies between Djokovic’s statements and his social media posts.

  1. Morality and example setting.

Novak Djokovic

Greatness is a responsibility. Influencers, celebrities and high-profile leaders must be aware of their positions, their power of example and need to serve in the public interest.

His refusal to be vaccinated not only puts other people around him in danger, it is also bad PR and a dreadful example.

Novak Djokovic has the financial means to get first class treatment should he catch a Covid related disease. He can jet out in business class to an exotic destination to quarantine if he ever needs to. Most of his 9 million Twitter followers are not as fortunate.

Some other highly influential leaders and church pastors should also be mindful of the need for such moral responsibility.

  1. The speed and power of trust.

Novak Djokovic

When thinking about who you want to work with, the key is trust. Your audience must trust and respect the opinions and value system of the influencers you partner with.

Without the trust component, any results will be superficial.

Novak Djokovic was the fourth-highest-paid tennis player in 2021. He reportedly made a whopping $30 million from endorsements alone, with an additional $8 million coming from his tennis winnings.

Lacoste, Head tennis racket, Hublot a Swiss luxury watchmaker, and Australia’s biggest bank ANZ are some of his major sponsors. These brands might soon be taking another look at Djokovic and this trust factor.

  1. Brands should think wholistic.

Great brands are wholistic in their thinking and remember that all parts of the brand are interconnected.

When one part of the brand suffers, the entire brand profile is tarnished. Djokovic’s brand reputation and self-worth has taken a huge hit and it would take him a long time to recover. It might even affect his $30 million sports sponsorships. His presidency of the ATP Player Council is also being loudly questioned

  1. Reputation lost can be regained if….

The beauty about PR is that with the consistent application of and adherence to its core principles, it can help to fix a complex reputation problem.

This is also one of the key lessons in this influencer marketing and PR case study.

Roger Federer’s time at the top saw him embrace that leadership identity, molding himself into the ultimate tennis professional. Gracious in defeat and victory and without a bad word to say about anyone he backed up his admirable public identity with an effortless yet engaging style on-court.[2]

In Nigeria, some of the top celebrity brand ambassadors include Richard Mofe-Damijo, Don Jazzy, Davido, Buma Boy, Basketmouth, Genevieve, Whiz Kid and more. Their sponsors would also be looking at the PR and influencer Marketing lessons to learn from the Djokovic public relations case study.[3]

The combination of good character with athletic prowess is a skill that Djokovic needs to be well tutored on.  Then he will master the lesson that greatness is a responsibility. This is also his PR hope.

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