Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Communications Lessons from Mark McGwire and Richard Nixon

We've all seen TV "confessionals" as part of a media strategy: Bill Clinton's, A-Rod's, Mark Sanford, Jim Bakker, et al. Now comes Mark McGwire's all-out media blitz Monday in which he admitted using steroids to enhance his game.

Since the dawn of the TV age (and probably earlier, but I'm lazy to do the proper research), the idiot box has been viewed as a useful platform for addressing concerns, silencing critics, apologizing for wrongdoing, etc.

Richard M. Nixon famously used the then new medium (the "Checkers" story) to dispel corruption rumors and build public support that would force Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket.

Recently we saw South Carolina governor Mark Sanford attempt to use TV to very publicly get a handle on a messy personal life. First, he held a press conference to talk about how he lied about going hiking, but was with his mistress in Argentina, then he (mistakenly) KEPT going on TV to ramble on about his misdoings and have a meltdown.

The difference here, now, with a case like Mark McGwire, is that it's all being VERY carefully stage-managed (WHO or what was in control of Sanford?). As the New York Times notes in a great, behind-the-curtain story (a piece that was surely managed by the McGwire PR team) about the PR strategy:

The one-day plan — coordinated over the past month by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs a crisis-communications company, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who recently hired McGwire as their batting coach — contrasts with last year’s roll-out of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission.

In this case, it looks like maybe the strategy will work. Why? EVERYONE has known forever that McGwire used steroids. So the "news" that he is admitting it is NOT a big deal. There is no "wow" factor here. He was properly coached to be very contrite and emotional about the admission.

But the pitfalls lie along the road of contrition: He COVERED up wrongdoing. It's not the crime that gets you but the obfuscation.
Nixon stands as a interesting example of a communications strategist and what he did/or could have done. There is a great quote from the Oliver Stone film "Nixon" that sheds light on crisis communications and the art of public confessionals:

H. R. Haldeman: Eight words back in '72. 'I covered up. I was wrong. I'm sorry'. The American public would have forgiven him. But we never opened our mouths, John. We failed him.

Since we all knew McGwire did steroids, that aspect doesn't much matter. Note the A-Rod example. We don't really care. Regardless of the Times saying that A-Rod's confessional was rolled-out differently, there are different factors here. A-Rod is a beloved Yankee. We can all get past it. He has built up (and continues to increase) his personal capital with the public over the years and we can forgive him.

Communications, marketing, branding, all things at work here -- all revolve around TRUST. Trust with the consumer, which in the case of sports is a BIG group: basically the entire audience who watches or cares about what Mark McGwire (and in some sense, baseball in general) is doing. Do we trust McGwire? Has he built up the trust capital with the public over the years? Is he a "beloved" figure?

The crisis communications approach at work here is about restoring and enhancing trust with stakeholders. The messages: Trust me, I fouled up, I'm sorry, I know it was wrong, I will never do this kind of bad thing again.

The trick has always been to say "I'm sorry" and do it quickly and earnestly. Mark McGwire has done it a little late in the game, but we'll see how this affects his own legacy.

Thanks for reading.
-Jonathan Gardner

1 comment:

  1. Coming out and apologizing right away is always the smart move. The fact that he waited so long to do it ... poor strategy. But it's good he did it and didn't pull a Pete Rose

    PR at Sunrise - worob.com