Crisis PR – Kellie Harrington, SPAR stores and Off The Ball AM Show

Kellie Harrington holds her Olympic gold medal. Image credit: Irish Examiner, 28th March 2023

Crisis PR specialist Ellen Gunning analyses the crisis involving Olympic Boxer Kellie Harrington, the SPAR chain of convenience stores and the top-rated Off The Ball AM Show. 

Have you been following the crisis involving Olympic Boxer Kellie Harrington, the SPAR chain of convenience stores and the top-rated Off The Ball AM Show? It makes for fascinating crisis analysis.

Quick background. Kellie was interviewed by Shane Hannon about sporting topics and her ambassadorship role for SPAR. He asked a question about her attitude to immigrants and a tweet that she had posted. She said that the post was from last year, and she wasn’t getting involved in answering the question. Shane persisted and (off camera) the SPAR PR person intervened to say ‘move on’.

That’s it in a nutshell. The interview gained legs as they say. Everyone started to comment and, to be honest, no one emerged from this one with any glory at all. Let’s look at each participant in turn.

The Journalist

The interviewer Shane Hannon asked an obscure question. I was unaware of the tweet. Here’s what he asked: “I know you’ve had a number of interactions on social media that have suggested that you have strongly held views on immigration. Are those opinions you still feel strongly about?” For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. What opinions? If he was going to raise an issue, he should have phrased the question clearly so that we knew what he was talking about. He should have told us what he believed her opinions were. Then we would have had some clarity. The question, and the way it was asked, was badly handled.

He persisted – 8 times by my count – in trying to get her to comment on her beliefs on immigration. It was hard not to agree with Kellie that he was hanging her “out to dry”.

Had he asked a clearer question initially, and devoted more time to structuring his follow-up questions, he could have had her on the ropes (pardon the pun) for longer and we would all have wanted to know more about her views.

Ireland’s Kellie Harrington. Credit: The, March 27th 2023

The Olympic Boxer

The Olympic Boxer Kellie Harrington didn’t handle it well either. She obviously knew, immediately, what he was talking about. She asked for the question to be repeated and then said that she wouldn’t answer it. She said, a couple of times, that she felt he was setting her up. She was very strong in holding her line that she would not comment and she felt he was baiting her. But, she had posted the tweet – and later deleted it – so she knew that this question could arise at any point in time. She should have been better prepared for it and she should have dealt with it.

She also, at one point asked: “Is this what you want to waste the time on?”. Discussing the issue of immigration and how immigrants are treated in Ireland is not time-wasting!

She needed to either stand over her comments or immediately explain why and how it happened.

Had she done this first, and immediately, his follow-up questions would have indeed looked like he was setting her up. By not answering the question with conviction, she allowed the crisis to develop.

She issued a long statement later in which she said: ”I reacted with my emotions and without the facts”. Had she said this to the interviewer, she would have closed down the discussion in minutes. There is great goodwill towards her and everyone makes mistakes!

SPAR stores & their PR person

And what about the PR person? This woman was off-camera and had obviously arranged the interview. She must have been blindsided by the question because she was not prepared for it either. She intervened, I believe, out of a sense of worry that the interview was going the wrong way for her client – SPAR.

Her interjection was about the fact that this interview was about SPAR’s 60th Anniversary and not Kellie’s tweet. Wrong. The reason she pitched Kellie for the interview was to promote SPAR’s Anniversary, but the deal, with any interview, is that the interviewer may ask whatever they wish – otherwise, it is propaganda or paid advertising. She could reasonably expect that the SPAR Anniversary would be covered in the interview but should have expected a wider range of issues than that single topic.

No glory for anyone

In conclusion, the interviewer failed in his attempt to spin a sports interview into a current affairs interview. The interviewee didn’t handle the question at all, which really helped to put a focus on an old issue and re-ignite the media fire. The PR person showed a lack of client preparation and a lack of understanding of media rules of engagement through her interjection.

But we are still following the crisis which is attracting ongoing media comment. Who said that all publicity is good publicity? (Probably not SPAR).