SBD/Issue 87/SportsBusiness Daily Exclusives

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.

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.

Q: What is the right forum? Was MLB Network the right forum and was Costas the right guy? Or do you target ESPN and/or a Schapp?

Scott: Working with the Cardinals to disseminate the information was a safe channel to break this news. Since Costas is synonymous with baseball and a former play-by-play announcer in St. Louis, I believe Costas and the MLB Network was the right forum for McGwire to discuss this admission.

Wool: After watching the interview I would say that Bob tested McGwire but also let him explain his side of the story. It seemed fair.

Gelfand Agrees With
Bob Costas Decision
Gelfand: The first TV interview certainly plays a large role in shaping public opinion. In addition, who conducts it (and how they handled the sit-down) has undoubtedly become part of the story itself. As a result, the choice of interviewer almost dictates what outlet you should go to not the other way around. And they clearly went the right way with Bob Costas, who you cannot get any better than.

Seibel: Bob Costas was absolutely the right person for a major television interview. Several reasons: 1) Bob is one of the most respected baseball authorities in our country. He understands the game, has studied its history, and appreciates its place in American culture. In terms of knowledge and perspective, Bob is unsurpassed – and that leads to a much more thoughtful and productive interview for everyone (the newsmaker, the viewer and the network). 2) In terms of image and perception, the newsmaker benefits from being interviewed by someone who is credible and respected. 3) Bob is a St. Louis guy. He has had a front row seat for every chapter in the Mark McGwire story – the highs and the lows.

Wladika: I’m a little old school. To me, the right forum was a press conference – that is the “fairest” way to not play any favorites with the media. ... I am sure that the PR handlers were very concerned about getting a “wolfpack” mentality that can occur at press conferences. And clearly the PR handlers were worried about McGwire’s ability to handle the forum of a press conference.

Paul: I am sure Ari [Fleischer] chose the MLB Network because he believed they would go easy on Mark. As the League he played in and is still employed by, MLB has a biased interest in his future. Also, Major League Baseball is also one of Ari's clients. No coincidence there.

Q: Where do you hold a press conference now? Do you have to?

Seibel: Press conferences are to journalism what big-box retailers are to shopping: efficient, but impersonal. ... Frankly, I don’t know who dislikes press conferences more – journalists or newsmakers. I’ll take the personal attention of a series of one-on-one interviews over a press conference every time.

Scott Does Not Believe
McGwire Needs Presser
Scott: These days I don’t believe you have to hold a press conference to get the news out. 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.

Wool: No, would not recommend. Since this is the offseason and the media’s focus on MLB is temporarily on hiatus, I am sure there will be more to come on this story as it evolves and as Spring Training gets closer, but I can’t see a reason for a press conference.

Wladika: St. Louis would have been the place to hold the press conference. He broke the record in St. Louis – and it’s the Cardinals who he is returning to as a coach. If the Cardinals are proud and comfortable in having him return to the organization as a coach, then they should have not had a problem with hosting a press conference for him.

Gelfand: I really don’t believe it matters where you hold the press conference. Sometimes there is too much thought put into the “where” part. It’s going to be a distraction no matter where you have it. ... I do believe a press conference can play an important part of any strategy, if you decide to hold one. It is not a “stand alone” strategy, but it allows you to speak to every media outlet at once.

Q: How are you crafting what you are saying and how it is said? As one source said, if he handled the "don’t you think you hit more HRs because of it" question better, he’s not getting knocked as much.

Wladika: That’s the most important part – the forum you elect to use is secondary to getting the messaging correct and delivering it in a believable fashion. And the messaging and delivery was severely lacking. McGwire was either poorly prepared by his PR handlers -- or he didn’t listen to his PR handlers advice and went “off the reservation.” For McGwire to say to Costas that his records are “completely legit” while he was on PEDs was a travesty. ...  He left more questions hanging out there than he answered and he showed he still is not coming clean and telling the truth.

Paul: In my opinion, McGwire is giving only a half-truth, which is one of the most hurtful types of lies. His response to the performance-enhancing question in the MLB interview showed he is not fully humbled himself and he is lying about portions of his story. As a result, McGwire's reputation is still in crisis, in my opinion.

Gelfand: It really comes down to what the person wants to say. If there is an answer that doesn’t seem like it will go over well it is your job to push back. But it never really is that simple and as much as you may want (and try) to show them a better way to answer a question, you also want them to be comfortable and force-feeding an answer may cause more harm than good. If they don’t believe their answer, it will show. At the end of the day though, this is all about the substance of your answers.

Favorito Says Insincere Answer
Can Make Things Even Worse
Favorito: This is not a movie, where you get re-takes. It also is a matter of what the client wants to say. You can make suggestions, but you can't force anyone to say what they do not want to say, that’s not what media training is. You provide the Q&A and your best advice, but it is not an exact science. If the client doesn't believe, it can be very, very insincere and make things even worse. 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.

Scott: Going back on a previous denial is tough. ... I believe he truly believes that drugs played a role only in recovery, not in his ability to play once he took the field. He feels strongly about this and I’m not sure there is a win-win answer to this question.

Wool: One 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.

Seibel: Well-crafted messaging will quickly unravel if, at some level, it’s not a reflection of what the newsmaker actually believes. ... If McGwire truly believes his steroid use had no impact on his home run production, no matter how illogical or implausible that may be to most everyone else, what can you do? You can’t risk having him say something he doesn’t actually believe. ... The timing of this was spot-on: after the major college bowl games and the first weekend of the NFL Playoffs.

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