As a general rule of thumb I try to steer clear of blogging on topics that have already been discussed ad nauseam by the media or in the blogosphere. This post is an exception because the Michael Vick public relations campaign – currently in full swing – is too good a case study to pass up. Michael Vick’s spectacular fall – from star NFL quarterback to inmate – has received more than its share of coverage. Vick’s big mistake was doing something that was bad and out of the ordinary. Those two are an awful media combination, especially when you add Vick’s fame and fortune to the equation. The media circus was a predictable event given these factors.
The more frenzied the media became in their coverage of Vick’s dogfighting ring, the more delicate the process of repairing his professional image became. When the condemnation is as universal and fevered as it was against Vick, his only option was to be contrite. And when the options are that limited, the public smells desperation and assumes the inevitable apology will be disingenuous. Apparently the Vick public relations team doesn’t understand this. If they want Vick to be believed, they have to be candid. So far, their playbook fails to challenge the public’s skepticism. Instead, it reinforces it.
The first indication that the Vick public relations team was taking an aggressive, the-public-is-stupid tack to his comeback was the much-publicized chatter that Vick was “talking” to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). While I appreciate the pluck it took for Vick to make that phone call, the idea that he should be a PETA spokesperson is an overreach. Convincing the public that Vick regrets his actions – and therefore deserve a second chance – isn’t difficult. Convincing the public that he had a radical conversion to the importance of animal rights is nearly impossible. I like aggressive PR campaigns, but this one just feels desperate.
During Sunday night’s interview with CBS sports reporter James Brown, Vick had the chance to show genuine remorse, without looking desperate. Instead he looked genuinely desperate. When asked by Brown whether he was just doing the interview so he could play football again, Vick said: “football don’t even matter.” Wow, this really was a radical conversion! Unfortunately for Vick, it’s also entirely unbelievable.
Repairing a corporate or personal image is never easy, and the Vick case is especially tricky. However, Vick’s team forgot to ask themselves a simple question: will people believe what he’s saying? I personally don’t doubt that Vick feels remorse. But it’s unrealistic to think you can convince people that his life is now dedicated to saving animals – whether or not he plays football again.
For all the missteps in the Michael Vick apology tour, he has done a few things right. He has not assumed the public would forgive him and appears to comprehend the gravity of his crime. Also, it would have been easy to leave jail jaded. That doesn’t seem to have happened. If he cuts out the far-fetched stories of a jail cell conversion to loving dogs, a low-key, contrite approach will start to work. Be genuine; show remorse; ask for forgiveness; and then move on. The public will forgive eventually.