"What can Michael Vick do to regain his reputation," a number of reporters from the national media have asked me in the days prior to and since the Atlanta Falcon's quarterback has agreed to plead guilty to facilitating illegal dog fighting and allegedly killing several of the dogs.
Public relations professionals are often mistakenly assumed to be able to “spin” any bad situation like this, but the truth is it cannot be done and this is especially true when it comes to criminal behavior.
When asked what advice I would give, I recommended that Vick make a public statement of contrition both before and after his jail term. After that, he should do what the media-savvy Paris Hilton is doing; stay out of sight. Ms. Hilton has not been seen partying much of late and that is a very wise decision on her part. Out of sight. Out of mind.
Vick engaged in a particularly vicious activity involving dogs in a nation whose pet owners spend approximately $41 billion dollars a year on dogs, cats, canaries, fish and other creatures, all of which adds up to a lot of love.
Decisions such as whether the Falcons will want to reinstate him to the team or whether the NFL will even let him play again are largely beyond the reach of public relations to influence, although his public image will play a significant role in such decisions following his incarceration. Even so, there are standards of behavior expected of professional athletes that may well preclude a return to his career.
Criminal behavior, particularly by high profile personalities, follows those individuals to the grave. An example is the obituaries for Leona Helmsley, the real estate magnate, convicted of tax evasion in 1988. She was sentenced to four years in prison and earned the sobriquet “the queen of mean” for her lavish lifestyle that contrasted with the way she treated employees and others. When she died on August 20, her criminal record eclipsed the fact that she gave millions to charitable causes.
Some celebrities are forgiven by the public, but a great deal depends on their “likeability.” Barry Bonds could hit another hundred home runs and still not enjoy the respect given to Hank Aaron whose record he broke. He is not likeable and does not seem to care. His failure to be more accessible to the popular media has worked against him.
The aforementioned Paris Hilton will return soon enough to the spotlight and will be welcomed back. She’s obscenely wealthy. She’s pretty. She has no perceptible talent, but she had not killed any dogs! Yes, she did some time in jail, but she probably benefited from the experience. This is not likely to be the case for Lindsey Lohan.
Americans believe in redemption, but from a public relations point of view, it needs to be managed after one falls afoul of the law because Americans also believe in obeying the law. A proper amount of time out of the spotlight is a smart thing. Then the celebrity needs to ease back into the spotlight by appearing in some friendly venues. The talk show circuit provides that. Some equally friendly print interviews also will facilitate a return to the real world.
Alan Caruba is a veteran public relations counselor and CEO of The Caruba Organization, www.caruba.com. He resides in South Orange, NJ.
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