Michael Phelps Teaches Us A Great Lesson
Kevin Sullivan, former Assistant to the President Bush for Communications, former Vice President of NBC Sports, former Vice President of the Dallas Mavericks (and a lot more under his belt), put together an excellent Keynote Speech at the 2009 UF Sports Law Symposium. In his concluding remarks, Sullivan used a PowerPoint Presentation to demonstrate how important having a good PR strategy can be for building and maintaining an athlete’s good image. He used Michael Phelps as an example and revealed magazine covers that did a good job boosting Phelps’s brand and those that had a negative impact on his image and future earning potential through high-paying sponsorships. What do you think Sullivan said to himself when he saw this photo of Phelps?
That his image was hurt beyond repair? Probably not. Sullivan is a pro at damage control and mentioned that Michael Vick is a prime example of what not to do when faced with an accusation that cannot be avoided. Instead of deny, deny, deny or totally keep your mouth should, admit that you did something wrong, apologize for the action, and promise (and follow through with the promise) that it will not happen again. Do this as soon as possible. While all of us think that Phelps is an idiot for allowing a periodical to take a photo of him smoking marijuana (I’ll leave it up to you to decide if he should or should not be smoking marijuana in the first place), he and his advisors were smart enough to institute strong damage control measures immediately after the pictures hit the newsstands, airwaves, and the blogosphere. Here is the official apology from Phelps:
“I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I’m 23-years-old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public – it will not happen again.”
Because of the quick response by Phelps, I believe that he will still be marketable for years to come. He will also benefit from instituting corrective measures like reaching out to troubled youths who smoke marijuana regularly, donating to charities, performing philanthropic work, etc.
My intention in this post is not to give athletes a Don’t Go To Jail card, allowing them to participate in illegal and immoral conduct and escape any negative ramifications. Instead, it is to inform athletes and their advisors that people slip up, all of us make mistakes, and it is important to prepare for those potential mishaps before they happen. Phelps and his team were well prepared for this potential image ruiner, and seem to have attacked the situation as best as they possibly could.
Phelps will also be helped out by the fact that the photos broke a couple of days before the Super Bowl. It got a couple of days of press over the weekend, but now everyone has moved on to the amazing game between the Steelers and Cardinals, Kobe’s miraculous performance vs. the Knicks, etc. Phelps and his team should be very happy and realize that they got lucky as well. Most importantly, Phelps needs to use this as a learning experience. One stupid move means a lot more to Phelps than it does to most of us. It is nice to see the IOC and many of his sponsors sticking behind Phelps after his comments. Phelps may no longer be projected to make $100 million in endorsements. Maybe now it will be $80 million. It is still better than the huge decrease that could have resulted had his team acted improperly after the images of Phelps smoking marijuana hit the general public.