SBD/Issue 88/Sports Media

McGwire Roundtable Part II: PR Experts Discuss Costas, Messaging

After MLB Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids during his playing career, critics were quick to weigh in on both the content of his words and the forums in which he spoke them. Staff writer Erik Swanson recently asked a panel of experts to analyze various aspects of the admission strategy, and in part two of our roundtable, panelists discuss the decision to grant Bob Costas and MLB Network the first on-camera interview, the messaging behind the admission, as well as the importance of holding a press conference. 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.

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 Jeremy Schaap?

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
Decision To Go With Costas
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 Feels McGwire
Does Not Need 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 Message
Was Conveyed Clearly
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.

LET ME BE "REAL" CLEAR: In his closing statement on HBO's "Real Sports" last night, HBO's Bryant Gumbel addressed the McGwire's steroid admission. Gumbel said, "Finally tonight, an open letter to baseball's usual suspects. Dear Barry, Roger, Sammy, and Rafael. I'm writing in hopes you saw Mark McGwire's phony non-apology last week and learned from it. I'm assuming that you, like most people not named Tony La Russa, got a good laugh out of Mark's crocodile tears and his self-serving claims about truth, guilt and the pharmaceutical way. So on behalf of all fans, do us a favor. If and when you're ready to come clean, don't insult us with talk of how much of what you did was God-given and how much was chemically induced. Let us figure that out, okay, and don't play us for idiots. Don't play us for idiots. Spare us the lies about taking 'roids for health reasons. We're all grownups. You took stuff for the same reason most of us break or bend rules: you thought you could get away with it, and you did. You did because Commissioner Bud, being Bud, was of course asleep at the switch when you suddenly grew Shrek-like necks and bloated biceps. But even Bud is selling absolution these days. He's cheering any and all mea culpas, even half-assed ones. If you don't believe me, just ask A-Rod and Manny, Papi, Jason and the others who've come forward because they had to. There may be no crying in baseball, but there is forgiveness, maybe even enough to get you to Cooperstown. In closing guys, please feel free to share this letter with Bagwell, Nomar, Pudge and all those others who went from hitting homers to power outages overnight. Tell them fans are ready to accept what happened, tell them we're ready to move on. Tell them that most of us get it, even if they, like you, still don't" ("Real Sports," HBO, 1/19).

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