Spin docs prescribe sports crisis aid

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Whether it's a White House sex scandal, dogfighting allegations or a referee accused of betting on games, the rules are the same: Be candid, be reassuring and, most of all, get your message out before public opinion hardens.

Just ask Mike McCurry, Lanny Davis, Frank Luntz and Robert S. Bennett. Together, these crisis management experts have steered politicians and corporations through such well-known scandals as the Monica Lewinsky investigation and the Enron collapse.

Responding to a Sun request, the experts offered some pointed suggestions for sports leagues dealing with image-damaging allegations.

Experts said the NBA's referee scandal, in particular, threatened to undermine the connection fans feel with the league. Fans only needed to look at NBA commissioner David Stern's somber expression at his July 24 briefing to understand the magnitude of the allegations that Tim Donaghy bet on games. Stern had the bearing of someone undergoing a personal crisis.

"I have been involved with refereeing, and obviously been involved with the NBA for 40 years in some shape or form. I can tell you that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or a commissioner of the NBA," Stern said. "My reaction was, 'I can't believe it's happening to us.' "

The experts' best advice when dealing with such crises:

Respond immediately to the situation. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick committed the PR gaffe of waiting too long to respond to allegations of involvement in dogfighting at a Virginia property. The delay allowed the public's initial impressions to crystallize.

Don't mix your message. Baseball seemed to tolerate steroid use by players "who brought people to the ballpark" for years, then tried to get tough, said Bennett, President Clinton's personal attorney in the Paula Jones case.

"You have to have consistency," said Bennett, who also once represented the late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott over offensive racial and ethnic remarks.

Be wary of allowing lawyers' concerns to wreck your public relations strategies. Davis, a former White House special counsel, said Clinton and other public figures often allowed their statements to be so programmed by attorneys that they lost credibility.

Chris Anderson of The Marketing Arm, a national marketing agency, agrees. Anderson says lawyers "often recommend a more defensive strategy, which involves denials and delay tactics" that can damage reputations.

Davis has written a book, which he says could apply to sports, called Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself: Notes From My White House Education.

Analyzing Stern

Davis said Stern appeared to understand some of the lessons at his 70-minute news conference to address the explosive allegations about Donaghy, who resigned on July 9.

"I don't know the facts as to what Mr. Stern knew or when he knew it," Davis said. But as an observer he said it appeared the commissioner could have gone further.

"I do not understand why he did not hand out a complete chronology of everything that has happened -- when did he learn, what did he learn, what is he planning to do about it and, most importantly, how is he going to fix it?" Davis said.

In his comments, Stern did offer a partial timeline. He said he was constrained because the investigation of Donaghy was ongoing.

Sports, more than ever, needs public relations heavyweights, and where better to find them than the political world? "This is really the first time all of our major sports leagues are under attack," said Ronn Torossian, president of New York-based 5W Public Relations.

Whether it's sports or politics, the strategies are largely the same -- as evidenced by the fact that Davis, Bennett and Luntz, a pollster and consultant, have all worked for sports figures or organizations, as well as leading politicians.

Davis and his law firm, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, was retained by NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw recently to advise him on legal issues and media coverage related to former players' benefits and other matters.

Sports like politics

Bennett has worked with anti-doping groups and is a judge on an international arbitration court handling sports issues. Luntz said he has worked with sports interests but didn't want them divulged.

"In sports, you still apply the rules of politics," said Luntz, who helped former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with political trouble in the 1990s. "One, are people's transgressions punished? Two, do they acknowledge culpability? And do they apologize? That's how you reconnect fans to their sports."

McCurry said Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig faced perhaps the most confounding PR dilemma in deciding whether to distance himself from San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds. Bonds' pursuit of Henry Aaron's all-time home run record has been mired in allegations that Bonds used steroids, and Selig has been reluctant to embrace him.

Selig needed to follow his heart, said McCurry, Clinton's press secretary during the scandal over the president's relationship with White House intern Lewinsky. If he is disingenuous, his body language will give him away and he will look phony.

"There's a point in which the best PR is really what you can live with at the end of the day. You'll come across as more authentic," McCurry said. "If he finds it distasteful to be in Barry Bonds' presence, then he should not be in his presence."

McCurry said Selig and the other sports commissioners should strive for a tone of concern without appearing alarmist. "You don't want to make it seem there's something about the game that can't be protected. You have to be a reassuring presence," he said.

Stern appeared subdued at his news conference. The commissioner said he felt betrayed by Donaghy, whom he called a "rogue."

Some experts said that Stern's attempting to isolate Donaghy was a risky strategy. The league could look ignorant or duplicitous, they said, if it turns out later that more than one referee was involved.

But Luntz said Stern's demeanor was correct. "If fans see the Earth, the sun and the sky come down on this referee it will clarify their faith," Luntz said. "David Stern cannot be too tough on this guy."

Bennett praised the NFL's recent decision to prevent Vick from attending training camp while allegations that he was involved in a dogfighting operation are investigated.

"They could have easily said 'We're not going to do anything until it's over,' " Bennett said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Troubleshooting

The Sun asked a handful of crisis management experts to weigh in on the problems facing the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. Among their individual verdicts:

Most serious issue: The NBA's. "If the rules of the game are shown to be faulty, you lose everybody," said pollster and consultant Frank Luntz. "Steroids is about the players' integrity but basketball officials - that's about the integrity of the game."

Most difficult personality: Barry Bonds. Imagine how different things would be if Bonds had admitted steroid use and said he made a mistake, said Lanny Davis, former special counsel under President Clinton. "Barry Bonds could never have come out looking good by admitting to using steroids, but he'd be a lot better off," Davis said.

Biggest PR goof: Michael Vick waited too long to address allegations of involvement in dogfighting, according to Chris Anderson of The Marketing Arm, a Texas-based agency. "Quickly isn't a week or more. That delayed response is inexcusable," he said.

JEFF BARKER

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