Although it took place 24 years ago, the feud between US figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding remains one of the most talked about scandals in Olympic history. The feud has been the focus Harding’s autobiography, an ABC special titled Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story, and most recently, a 2017 biographical film that earned over $33 million in the box office.
Following a practice in 1994, Kerrigan was coming off the ice when she was hit in the knee with a baton. In a heart wrenching moment caught on tape, Kerrigan is seen crying and screaming in pain and fear, that her Olympic career would be over. Following the attack, it was discovered that the assault was carried out by a man hired by rival skater, Tonya Harding’s ex-husband. To this day, Harding maintains her innocence and claims she did not know of the planned attack on her competitor.
Thankfully, Kerrigan’s injuries were not permanent; she suffered from severe swelling and a bruise, which left her sidelined for the following day’s Olympic qualifying round. IOC officials allowed Kerrigan to compete in the Olympics where she skated two of her best career performances and took home a silver medal.
The US Olympic Committee attempted to disqualify Harding from competing but allowed her to, after Harding threatened the organization with a $25 million lawsuit. The shamed figure skater went on to compete and placed eighth. Harding’s career following the Olympics was essentially over. She had been sentenced to probation, fined $160,000, stripped of her national title and banned from competing in any event sponsored by the US Figure Skating Championships.
As a public relations professional, I like to ask myself, “If I were the PR person tasked with responding to a crisis like this, how would I go about it?”
Before taking Tonya Harding on as a client I would be faced with an ethical decision to make. Harding claims that she was not aware of the planned attack on Kerrigan but the evidence stacks against her. As a person and a professional, I would need to look inside myself and decide if I was comfortable defending someone whose innocence I was unsure of.
If I chose to go forward as Harding’s PR person, the first thing I would do is get ahead of the story so I could frame my own narrative. The second Harding knew she would be implicated in the story she should have released a statement to the press. Being upfront and honest about what Harding knew and when she knew it would have made her a more reliable source. It came out that Harding’s ex-husband was linked to the attack five days after it took place, but Harding herself knew of his involvement days before.
Had Harding been honest and transparent upfront, her story would have had more credibility. Harding initially kept the truth from the media and that was the beginning of the end for her likability and her career.