Jan. 19, 2022 — For years I have counseled issues management clients that most people overestimate their ability to conceal uncomfortable information or underestimate the news media’s ability and initiative to dig it up.
This is especially true in the age of social media, emails, text messages and mobile telephones as well as doorbell and good, old-fashioned security cameras.
That’s what makes Novak Djokovic’s attempt to obtain a medical exemption and visa to play in the Australian Open look like a scene from a sequel to “Dumb and Dumber.”
An exemption from common sense
Amid the covid pandemic, Australia requires visa applicants to be fully vaccinated to avoid a quarantine upon arrival. Individuals who recently tested positive for covid, however, can be granted a medical exemption from vaccination for up to six months, a wrinkle in Australia’s visa policy that is still in dispute among government and tournament officials.
Nonetheless, Djokovic, unvaccinated and openly opposed to vaccine mandates, was attempting to gain entry to Australia via an exemption, saying he tested positive for covid in mid-December.
His bid for an exemption, however, was called into question when his behavior — in a series of seemingly routine activities after testing positive — generated headlines worldwide.
Investigative journalism made easy
Djokovic and his team apparently convinced themselves no one would see photos of him unmasked with a group of children the day after he said he tested positive for covid, even though those images appeared on his foundation’s social media feed. When confronted about the photos nearly a month later, and almost two days after they became the subject of news reports, Djokovic said he hadn’t received notice of the positive result until after the event. Djokovic’s brother, however, told reporters Serbia’s most famous athlete knew his results the same day.
Djokovic and his team apparently convinced themselves no one would know he tested positive two days before an in-person meeting with, of all people, a newspaper reporter and photographer. Though he said he socially distanced and wore a mask for the interview and only removed it for the photoshoot, Djokovic never disclosed his positive test before, during or after, according to the journalists. Djokovic later said it was “error of judgment.”
Hidden in plain sight
Finally, Djokovic and his team apparently convinced themselves that the incorrect and possibly misleading information about his recent travels listed on his visa application wouldn’t become public despite being tennis’ most recognizable player and photographed just about everywhere he goes. How can we be so sure Djokovic’s whereabouts are regularly chronicled in the public domain? A photo of him training in Spain about two weeks before entering Australia appears on his own Instagram account. Djokovic said the “member of his team” that filled out his visa paperwork made a “human error.”
We won’t know until possibly later this week if Djokovic’s questionable conduct after testing positive played a role in the 3-0 court decision affirming Australia’s immigration minister’s decision to cancel his visa for a second time. The minister said Djokovic could stir up anti-vaccine sentiment and that kicking him out was necessary to keep Australians safe.
In the court of public opinion, however, Djokovic has damaged his reputation, if not irreparably.
At best, this debacle has cast doubt on his truthfulness. At worst, Djokovic is seen as someone with little or no regard for the health of others. Moreover, many Australians, who have endured some of the world’s strictest covid restrictions, are upset Djokovic attempted to game the country’s covid regulations.
No doubt Djokovic and his team asked themselves many questions about Australia’s covid requirements and how they could navigate them so he could pursue a 10th Australian Open championship and a record 21st grand slam title.
The better question for Djokovic should have been, and for all those facing sensitive issues is, “What happens if the information you hope never sees light of day suddenly becomes public?”