SBD/Issue 86/Sports Media

McGwire Chose MLB Network For Costas; Experts Analyze Strategy

Mark McGwire's decision to grant MLB Network the first television interview after his admission to using steroids was driven by Bob Costas' role with the network, according to a source familiar with McGwire's strategy. "If Bob had been on HBO, they would've had the first interview," the source said. "If Bob was on, name your station, they would've had the first interview. So it was the host that drove that decision." The decision to go with Costas was part of a PR strategy that focused first and foremost on getting the news out and in the open to allow McGwire to get to work as hitting coach for the Cardinals, according to the source. The strategy -- which included a statement and simultaneous AP story on Monday afternoon, followed by the Costas interview that evening -- has been lauded by some in PR circles for its targeted approach but criticized by others for its brevity. Sports and entertainment marketing and communications consultant Joe Favorito praised the decision to lead with the AP and follow with Costas. "It was a very good way to manage the news cycle and get the main message -- about the use of steroids -- out very clearly," he said. But MGP & Associates President Mike Paul disagreed with the approach. "I don’t think a one-day-and-done strategy ever works," he said. "Not in politics and especially not in sports and entertainment. If McGwire were my client, I would have had the exact opposite strategy."

Most Public Relations Experts Agree With
McGwire's Choice Of Costas, MLB Network
CHOOSING COSTAS THE RIGHT MOVE? McGwire and his reps felt the first on-camera interview he gave on the subject needed to be a "serious, solid, tough but fair interview," and they identified Costas as the ideal interviewer for the job. "Bob Costas is widely recognized as being a tough and fair expert journalist," the source said. "And when you have something important, that's big, all you can ask for is tough and fair. Nobody wanted to go a route where it would be perceived as a friendly, softball interview." Most public relations experts questioned by THE DAILY agreed with the decision to choose Costas and MLB Net. SCP Worldwide Senior VP/Communications Eric Gelfand agreed with the decision to select the network based on Costas, noting interviewers have "undoubtedly become part of the story." As a result, he said, "The choice of interviewer almost dictates what outlet you should go to, not the other way around." Former USOC Chief Communications Officer Darryl Seibel, who now serves as Managing Partner for 776 Original Marketing, noted Costas is "one of the most respected baseball authorities" in the country. "In terms of image and perception, the newsmaker benefits from being interviewed by someone who is credible and respected," he said.

MISSING THE MARK? Some observers disagreed with the decision to lead with MLB Net. Communications consultant Vince Wladika, who spent years at Fox Sports and MLB, said McGwire's first public interview should have been in the form of a press conference. "I’m a little old school," he said. "To me, the right forum was a press conference -- that is the 'fairest' way to not play any favorites with the media." But Wladika said he believes McGwire's reps likely were worried about his ability to handle the forum of a press conference. "By doing Costas," he said, "McGwire and his advisors were counting on -- and trying to take advantage of -- Bob’s extremely strong credibility as an interviewer to bolster McGwire’s believability to the media and public." MGP's Paul said McGwire's reps likely chose MLB Net because they "believed they would go easy" on McGwire, as the league-owned network "has a biased interest in his future." Paul also pointed to MLB having previously worked with sports communications consultant Ari Fleischer, who advised McGwire ahead of his admission. "No coincidence there," Paul said.

NO RESTRICTIONS: No restrictions were set prior to the interview with Costas, according to the source, who added that McGwire wanted it to be "no restrictions, take what comes, explain it all." Of the hour-long interview, the source added, "There was an initial consideration of doing it shorter, but the more it was thought through, the decision was the longer the better; the more time for Mark to just tell his story." Meanwhile, McGwire has been criticized for refusing to admit that steroids enhanced his performance. But he truly believed everything he told Costas, according to the source, who added there was a consensus among his reps not to "put words in someone's mouth that they don't believe because you think it will lead to better PR." The source added, "It has to be authentic; it has to be genuine." That did not mesh with most observers, who criticized McGwire's performance in the interview for his refusal to admit that steroids enhanced his performance. Wladika said McGwire's assertion that his records are "completely legit" was a "travesty." He stated McGwire was "either poorly prepared by his PR handlers -- or he didn't listen" to their advice. Paul believes McGwire is "giving only a half-truth, which is one of the most hurtful types of lies," and his assertions showed he is "not fully humbled himself and he is lying about portions of his story." Paul added, "As a result, McGwire's reputation is still in crisis."

DON'T FORCE IT: Several execs noted the importance of not forcing McGwire into a scripted story. Ketchum Sports & Entertainment Managing Director Ann Wool said an athlete's handlers can "make suggestions on how to approach an answer to a question, but the best media training comes when advice is given, not a script." McGwire "clearly articulated his guilt, which was the goal of the interview, not the anecdotes surrounding it." Favorito said you "can't force anyone to say what they do not want to say." He added, "All you can do is advise and counsel. The main message, which was an admission of steroid use, was the one that needed to be conveyed and was conveyed pretty clearly." Seibel agreed, saying well-crafted messaging "will quickly unravel if, at some level, it's not a reflection of what the newsmaker actually believes -- and the media will quickly recognize and dismiss this as spin, not substance."

McGwire Has No Plans To Further
Discuss His Admission In A Formal Setting
NO FURTHER PLANS: Following yesterday's meeting with Cardinals fans, McGwire has no plans to discuss his admission in a formal setting, according to the source, who said he believes the story now is "pretty much spent." Several execs agreed with the decision not to hold a press conference. "These days I don’t believe you have to hold a press conference to get the news out," said Edelman GM of Sports & Sponsorship Mary Scott. "Holding a press conference also means you need to be willing to answer every reporter’s questions, and for something like this there would have been hundreds of media in attendance." Seibel agreed, noting press conferences make it "all-but-impossible for reporters to capture and convey the human element." Seibel: "Rarely do you get to know or understand how a person truly feels during a press conference, especially if the news is difficult." However, Paul speculated the failure to hold a press conference now will only "add more interest in McGwire's story this spring versus reducing it." He added, "I am sure he hopes the media will not be interested in the future in his steroid story, but they will be, especially on Opening Day as McGwire becomes a coach in the league. His team may need him to speak to the press at a press conference then." Gelfand said a press conference can play an "important part" of any strategy. "It allows you to speak to every media outlet at once," he noted, "helping you to better control the message and eliminates you from having to go from 'door-to-door' explaining yourself over and over potentially prolonging the media cycle."

See tomorrow's issue of THE DAILY for more commentary from our panel regarding various aspects of McGwire's admission strategy.

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