SBD/Issue 87/Sports Media

McGwire Roundtable: PR Experts Analyze Admission Strategy

MLB Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire's admission to using steroids during his playing career generated some heated debate, as critics weighed in on everything from the impact on McGwire's Hall of Fame candidacy to the public relations strategy behind his admission. Staff writer Erik Swanson recently asked a panel of experts to analyze various aspects of the admission strategy, from breaking the news with an exclusive AP story, to granting Bob Costas and MLB Network the first on-camera interview. Panelists included SCP Worldwide Senior VP/Communications Eric Gelfand, communications consultant Vince Wladika, MGP & Associates President Mike Paul, sports and entertainment marketing and communications consultant Joe Favorito, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment Managing Director Ann Wool, 776 Original Marketing Managing Partner Darryl Seibel and Edelman GM of Sports & Sponsorship Mary Scott. See tomorrow's issue of THE DAILY for part two.

Paul Believes PR Approach
Will Create More Interest
Q: Did you like the strategy of breaking with the AP? What are the positives and negatives to that? What other outlets would you consider? What are the benefits and drawbacks to potentially breaking with ESPN?

Gelfand: Given the magnitude of the McGwire story, it certainly made sense to go to the AP first. They do have a reach that is far and wide. I could have seen a scenario, however, where his first print interview went to the local paper (St. Louis Post-Dispatch). ... Most likely, the story would have received the same coverage regardless and you would have taken care of the local media outlet. There is an argument to make that ESPN is the source for sports news -- especially breaking news -- and that it is the platform to use because of its reach. Regardless, though, they are going to inundate their airwaves (and Web site) with wall-to-wall coverage of the story. So, does it really matter?

Wladika: While I don’t agree with the overall strategy from the start, once McGwire and his PR handlers decided to go down the route they chose, I have no problem breaking with AP. It gets it out to every member newspaper and also gets it out to all relevant Web sites/blogs, etc. (It is interesting to remember that it was an AP reporter who "broke" the andro story that started all this in the first place.)

Paul: Not really a strategy. More of a tactic in Ari Fleischer's one-day-and-done strategy for his client, Mark McGwire. That being said, AP is not a bad choice to break a story because of its global impact in seconds. I don't think a one-day-and-done strategy EVER works. Not in politics and especially not in sports and entertainment. If McGwire were my client, I would have had the exact opposite strategy. It would have been the whole truth or nothing and the goal is to be so comfortable talking about the issues that he is willing to talk about them with anyone the rest of his life. ... Ironically, Ari's strategy will add more interest in McGwire's story this spring versus reducing it.

Favorito: It all comes down to a few factors. How and who is your client comfortable with and who can help you reach the largest audience that you want to reach with your message. This is not a specific market story; it is an international story, so for this, AP makes sense. ... It was a very good way to manage the news cycle and get the main message -- about the use of steroids -- out very clearly. There are many outlets that I'm sure they considered, and again, it comes back to whom you are most comfortable with and whom your client feels most comfortable with. There is no playbook to go to for who you choose every time.

Wool: With so many different opinions, entities and factors involved, using a news engine with no affiliation to the league eliminates any speculation of a partnership with a broadcast partner, which also acts as a news source.

Seibel: I’m a big believer in the power, reach and influence of wire services, particularly as the media industry continues to contract, so yes -- I thought it was a solid strategy. With news such as this, there are two significant advantages in breaking the story with a well-respected wire service such as AP ... 1) By speaking on a "first exclusive" basis with a reporter (or with a small group of reporters) from a single news organization, the likelihood of your message being heard, and ultimately reflected in the reporting, is much greater. The reporter understands you are providing she/he with unprecedented access -- and what you should expect in return is balance, fairness and an opportunity to have your message heard. 2) Given the reach and influence of a major wire service, a balanced first story will often set the tempo and tone for subsequent stories by other news organizations.

Seibel Feels Exclusivity Is Very
Important In Today's Media
Q: In today's media, does it matter whom you talk to first, second or third?

Seibel: It matters more today than ever. For me, the most important criteria is knowledge. I want to work with a journalist who is knowledgeable and has some perspective on the subject at hand. 

Scott: Media watch other media and social spaces for news, and then the news spreads in seconds. The reason to focus on whom the few outlets you speak with and in what order comes down to trust in reporter/outlet; credibility of outlet; and reach.

Paul: It matters but it must be customized to each particular client. For example, it is wise to use a global or at least national media outlet first and it should include all of your client's key audiences or stakeholders.

Favorito: It depends on the story and its impact. Who you talk to first among the major competing media definitely matters for breaking news. That is why many organizations and personalities do feel better with not using exclusives; it causes way too many problems sometimes.

Wool: This depends on the story and who is telling it. When exclusives are promised on such sensitive topics, sometimes a conflict of interest may arise. By using the AP as their first step, they left the door open to do individual interviews as the story progresses down the line, which it will.

Wladika: In today’s Internet-based world, it really doesn’t matter what outlet you speak with first -- it’s more of a matter of relationships and what reporters/writers you think will give you the "fairest shake" for what you are trying to accomplish. There are no "deadlines" in today’s world like there used to be prior to the Internet.

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