It’s hard to turn on ESPN these days without a report on Michael Phelps or Alex Rodriguez. Both superstar athletes have suffered massive blows to their public image in the past few weeks, but each has taken a different approach to managing their respective crisis.
Various media personalities heralded Phelps as the greatest athlete in Olympics history (a modern history dating back to 1896) after he swam to eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. Equally captivating was the recently released picture of Michael holding a bong at a college party in November. The Phelps camp has been frantically trying to save the swimmer’s reputation ever since the picture hit the internet. Strategically, Phelps management agency, International Management Group (IMG) is playing the “youthful spirit” PR card, asking for understanding and forgiveness…a very sound strategy. But the drawn out saga that has unfolded probably wasn’t in their plans. Every additional apology Phelps’ issues goes straight to the front page; every informal poolside press conference has Phelps out of breath and un-groomed. Phelps needs his character and integrity reaffirmed, but neither his coaches nor friends have displayed support to the media. More proactive PR tactics are needed in times of crisis management.
Alex Rodriguez and his PR staff were far more aggressive in handling his recent admission to steroid use in Major League Baseball (MLB). Sports Illustrated broke the story on Sunday and Rodriguez disclosed all in an interview with ESPN’s Peter Gammons on Tuesday. He attacked the allegations and tried to minimize the damage by giving answers to questions sports fans were asking. Pulling a page from Phelps’ book, Rodriguez blamed his humanity for “making a mistake”. While Rodriguez’s image will never be the same, he was able to control the story, instead of letting the story control him.
These two sport-related cases offer lessons in crisis management. While the public will never forget these two incidents, savvy PR practices can minimize the damage to their respective reputations. Basketball’s Michael Jordan was able to stay in the public’s favor for years despite gambling allegations. Many businesses, company leaders, athletes, celebrities, etc. make mistakes because they are human. PR specialists must realize this fact and build a plan to emphasize the way individuals learn from mistakes.
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