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Ray Rice’s Friday news conference was one of those media events I wanted to give myself some time to think about.
Now that I’ve thought about it for almost 24 hours, I can say without reservation it is one of the worst media PR disasters I have ever seen. And that perhaps says as much about the Ravens and Rice’s apparent legion of advisers and handlers as it does the troubled running back himself.
It violated almost every rule of how to use a news conference to try to redeem a badly damaged image.
Start with the obvious: Rice apologizing publicly to all sorts of people for what happened in that New Jersey casino, but not his wife, Janay, the person he allegedly punched in the face.
He didn’t allegedly punch Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, Ravens coach John Harbaugh or any of his teammates in the face and drag them unconscious off an elevator like a slab of meat. But he apologized to all those folks who hold his football future in their hands while overlooking the real alleged victim, who was sitting next to him in front of all the cameras, a constant visual reminder throughout the session of what he wasn’t saying.
This was his great chance to publicly apologize to her and explain before a bank of cameras and sea of recording devices to any young men or women who think such behavior is acceptable how reprehensible it is. But he didn’t do that, even as his wife did apologize for the “role” she played in what she referred to as “the incident that night.” That “incident” on Feb. 15 resulted in him – not her -- being charged with felony aggravated assault.
And his failing to apologize to his wife while finding time to talk about “sponsors” who have chosen “not to not want to be in partnership” with him only underlined how utterly screwed up his values still appear to be. In TV terms, he looked like a man who was apologizing more from the checkbook than the heart.
Can anybody say Tiger Woods?
That fundamental gaffe was more than enough to sink any such image-rehabilitation news conference. But Rice’s Friday session at the Ravens’ Under Armour Performance Center will be used in PR and strategic communications classes for years as a checklist on how not to do it.
Rule one is to have a carefully thought-out talking point and/or narrative. Use your opening remarks to state it clearly, and then make sure every word you say somehow leads back to it.
Rice seemed to have something written on his iPhone, but he clearly had not memorized it. So, he kept picking up the device and paging through it while the room hung in awkward silence.
The one thing written on that screen should have been: “Apologize to the woman sitting next to me.”
But instead of that, the one thing he came back with after looking at the phone is, “Sometimes in life, people fail. But I wouldn't call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down. It's not getting up.”
He said a variation of this at least twice, sounding more robotic each time – as if one of his advisers or counselors had written it down for him and he couldn’t quite remember how it went.
Memo to Team Rice: it’s going to take a lot more than an empty bromide like this for most fans to forgive what they saw on a TMZ video that went viral. And next time, make sure Rice has done his homework.
Also, if you are going to stage an event like this, make sure you have a big show of support for the person trying to rehabilitate his or her image. Not having Bisciotti, Harbaugh or general manager Ozzie Newsome there was deadly in its own right.
I heard the spin from the mouth of the Ravens PR machine to the ears of local sportscasters that they were out of town at prior commitments and that the event was not delayed until their return because Rice’s advisers wanted it to be done Friday.
I have two responses to that: Either it’s a lie by the Ravens, or it’s true, and Rice’s is getting some of the worst PR advice in the world in pushing ahead with the event. The only teammate that I saw on camera was wide receiver Torrey Smith. That’s kind of pathetic if Rice is such a great and beloved guy.
Rice referred to the actions that led to him being charged with felony aggravated assault as "the situation me and my wife were in" and "this thing happening to me and my wife."
If you are going to try and convince listeners that you accept responsibility for what you did on that TMZ tape, don't use language in a news conference that makes it sound like you really believe something bad happened to you and you were just an innocent bystander.
And let’s hear it for the great Tiger Woods strategy of not taking questions from the press when what wasn't said Friday begged dozens of them.
That’s one way to get the mainstream sports press on your side, make them look even more pathetic and lapdog tame in their team coverage compared to TMZ, which has broken several Ravens-behaving-badly stories that Baltimore fans might otherwise never have known about.
UPDATE: In an interview on a New Jersey radio station, an attorney for Ray Rice has since suggested his client retaliated only after being struck first in a domestic-violence incident. You can read the Sun's account here.
My take: I think Rice has the worst lawyers in the world when it comes to media smarts if his attorney thinks saying this now about the woman Rice allegedly punched in the face in any way mitigates the ugliness of what the TMZ video shows. But if you needed any evidence that Team Rice is starting to understand what a debacle Friday's press conference was, this head-shakingly sorry act is it.