The news of last week’s mass layoffs of Sports Illustrated writers cut to the heart of sports fans and those being affected by more layoffs in the media space. I’ve looked back at more SI covers over the last week than I believe I had growing up on doctor’s offices’ and family coffee tables, and they’ve made me feel both nostalgic and sad.
But SI isn’t dead, in spite of a seeming epitaph being etched by some. They’re still pumping out news and content while the business folks sort out the finances. So why is everyone so eager to erect a tombstone?
The SI brand has gone through layoffs like this before and is one of several media companies in the last two weeks seeing changes. While past layoffs were smaller and were only up to half of the newsroom, this one feels different—more like a contracted game of chicken at the workers’ expense. But this isn’t the first “death” of SI, nor will it be the last.
Others have beaten into the ground themes like labor implications, SI’s past transgressions and how digital media outlets are trending. So let’s look at this situation from another direction: narrative shaping.
When news like this drops, there are two typical courses of action: Get in front of it or respond when necessary. It’s an educated risk calculation: Can your brand recover from a short term hit and rebound in the long term or does this have the potential to tarnish your brand reputation beyond repair? Larger businesses and companies like Arena Group—which owns SI—and Authentic Brands Group can usually afford to take the hit and stay purely reactionary. Their brands will survive just fine, and most people don’t want to draw attention to a negative issue, so reactive it is.
Unlike those two companies, the more public SI brand has been plagued by poor news from AI-generated stories reporters to continued downsizing since 2018. SI took the brunt of the hit for this news, and that is the real issue.
For two companies that made statements about commitment to preserving SI’s integrity and not tarnishing the SI legacy, their approach goes against that very sentiment. Layoffs are tricky, and there are many hurdles companies need to cross before making staffing statements publicly, including making sure all parties are personally made aware. But waiting for an uncontrolled force to shape the narrative and only pursuing damage control (or ignoring it altogether) risks the SI brand losing most to all credibility and attention in a future with dwindling reliance on newsgroups, especially in sports. Brand management should have been more focused on SI’s level, not the IP ownership or publisher.
This is why crisis and contingency plans are so important to comms teams and businesses. Being able to paint the portrait of scale and future outlook rather than letting a first impression dictate the public response could reduce the stain left on the brand, especially when preservation and legacy is touted.
Had Arena Group (which has to answer for a product in the decline) and Authentic Brands Group (which is fighting to keep the SI brand alive) taken a more proactive approach, maybe the narrative of the SI Union saying “a significant number, if not all” wouldn’t elicit a death spiral reaction from readers and consumers. Maybe that was already accounted for since company layoffs always draw negative press, but if it wasn’t it needs to be a consideration.
Once the news is out, it’s harder to alter minds and control what has already been published. News agencies will be responsible and provide updates, but the public doesn’t always pay attention or stray from their initial reaction.
We won’t know if Arena Group and Authentic Brands Group did this the right way until projections, results and long-term public sentiment surface in the coming months for Sports Illustrated. The kid in me hurts on the inside seeing the demise of Sports Illustrated unfold in real time and desperately wants to cry foul, but like most things in public relations this is a long game.
Decisions made in a vacuum can have unintended consequences, and your brand could be the one being told it’s dead. You can’t control a story completely, but we sure can help shape it.