Surekha Ragavan
Jan 7, 2022

‘A complete mess’: Novak Djokovic saga causes reputational damage

PR pros weigh in on the poor communications practice that led to confusion and anger ahead of one of the sporting world’s most-watched tournaments.

Novak Djokovic (Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic (Getty Images)

Multiple parties in Australia are currently scrambling to seek answers as top tennis player Novak Djokovic made headlines for being denied entry into Melbourne on Wednesday (January 5) to defend his Australian Open title and score his 21st Grand Slam trophy. The world number one has been previously vocal against Covid vaccinations and is allegedly unvaccinated. Australian PM Scott Morrison said yesterday: “Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules.”

Just a day before his flight, Djokovic said via his Twitter account that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission”. However, it was later clarified that the permission from Tennis Australia to compete in Melbourne does not equate to a visa to enter the country, whose borders are controlled by the Australian Border Force (ABF). Djokovic and his team have appealed the visa denial and will bring the issue to court.

Owing to Djokovic’s fandom worldwide, this issue has led to international scrutiny on the miscommunication between state and federal authorities in Australia. The controversy is also expected to turn into a diplomatic rift between Djokovic’s home country Serbia and Australia. On Instagram, Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić said he would ‘fight for Djokovic’ to be able to enter Australia, and said he would use all diplomatic avenues available to Serbia to help the player.

On top of that, Djokovic’s detention in the Park Hotel in Carlton, has brought the world's attention to the fact that that location is being used as a detention centre for refugees in Australia, some of whom have been held in the facility for years. Mehdi, a refugee who has spent nine years in detention told The Guardian: “There is a disappointment: everyone wants to ask me about Novak, what the hotel is like for him. But they don’t ask about us: we have been locked up in this place for months, for years.”

On social media, most users argued against Djokovic’s plea to enter the country. An analysis on ABC said that reputational damage for Tennis Australia and the Australian Open is inevitable regardless of the outcome of Djokovic’s case. If he wins his appeal and gets to stay and play in the Australian Open, “there is a risk the tournament will be completely overshadowed by his presence, and the potential for protests or public anger”. However, if he loses his appeal, the fallout could still be significant.

Duncan Craig, communications director at DC Comms, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that the situation is a “complete mess”.

“Why did the Department of Home Affairs and the ABF allow him to get through Dubai and arrive in Melbourne, only to be denied entry?," Craig asked. "In the middle of the week, the Australian PM said that Djokovic’s admission into Australia was a matter for the Victorian state government. However, public reaction to the exemption announcement was significant, so the federal government back-flipped and deployed a communications approach that made them look like they saved the day.”

Craig said that this saga has led to Djokovic winning the online support of those opposed to vaccine mandates, but his public reputation has taken a hit. In April 2020, the tennis star was at the centre of a fiasco as his ill-fated Adria Tour in Belgrade turned into a Covid super-spreader event. Djokovic’s reputation in the tennis world went south as images emerged of thousands of maskless fans sitting elbow-to-elbow, players hugging and exchanging high-fives, and celebratory events in nightclubs.

“The communications games over the next few weeks will be fascinating as Team Novak, the Australian Federal government, the Victorian state government, and Tennis Australia all jockey to win the information and perception war,” said Craig. “However, the Australian Open is the biggest sporting event in the country and it is unlikely to suffer reputation damage. I do wonder how [Djokovic] will handle the other Grand Slam events and the ATP circuit this year.”

The winner, according to Craig, appears to be tennis legend Rafael Nadal, who has taken a swipe at Djokovic, saying he must get vaccinated or face the consequences.

Craig added that this episode has also taken important attention away from Australia’s battle to fully fund rapid antigen tests amid a surging Omicron outbreak. “The lesson is that by playing politics you can create a hole that becomes impossible to get out of. There is going to be a federal election in May, and domestic political considerations are driving political decisions,” he said.

Good communications is politics-free, consistent and delivers clarity, especially in the government sector where decisions affect lives and livelihoods—Duncan Craig

Lewis Shields, head of strategy and growth at Forward, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that with more than 287,000 active Covid cases currently in Australia and many people still distanced from family and friends, it would be damaging for the Australian government to be seen to be making any special allowances for individuals.

“The miscommunication that has led to Novak’s refusal of entry into Australia will no doubt leave many red-faced," said Shields. "However, a level of controversy around his entry into the country was to be expected. Since Novak publicly opposed mandatory vaccinations for tennis players last April and didn’t clarify his vaccination status in the following months, the situation which has unfolded isn’t surprising.”

Shields said that if Djokovic is allowed to stay, there remains a risk that Australians see it as unfair, and it will likely generate bad will for him and the Australian Open. It could also confuse Australians trying to stay up-to-date with the frequently changing Covid guidelines.

He added: “Australians are doing it hard at the moment, and as a nation, we can be critical of individuals receiving special treatment because of their celebrity status. While the international community might make light of Australia’s strict immigration laws, the government needs to be seen to be fair and prioritise its people.”

Campaign Asia

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