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New Rules on Salvaging Your PR Image

Note to Michael Vick: Your PR image rehab campaign bites. As someone who’s genetically incapable of understanding football, the fact that I know so much about Vick says a lot about the reach of his despicable celebrity. Vick’s the newest poster child for that infamous club of talent who really, truly, badly screw up and want […]

Note to Michael Vick: Your PR image rehab campaign bites.

As someone who’s genetically incapable of understanding football, the fact that I know so much about Vick says a lot about the reach of his despicable celebrity.

Vick’s the newest poster child for that infamous club of talent who really, truly, badly screw up and want to restore their image — or restore that hefty old paycheck and perks that demand a little penance first. But he’s also the example of why this uniquely American PR art form has to grow up.

At one time, the strategy for celebrity redemption was interesting and offered in occasional doses. Now, it’s both ritual and regular.

These days, an entry-level publicist could map it out. First, the confessional interview is done for a high-visibility media outlet, with a carefully vetted sympathetic interviewer. Few or no statements are released in advance, to build excitement. The sitdown delivers admission of mistakes, a little religion, apologies and pitches for forgiveness. Toss in a furrowed brow, stammer, maybe even tears, so the cameraperson can get that one great tight shot.

Book the interviewer to be interviewed other media, where he or she — to avoid looking like a chump who’s just a pawn in a PR campaign — further affirms the authenticity of the remorse.

Finally, there’s some public commitment to do community service sometime down the road specifically related to the faux pas. Preferably something that doesn’t require getting hands dirty, wearing an orange uniform or waking up early. A PSA is good because it guarantees TV exposure along with wardrobe, grooming and maybe craft services. And since there’s virtually no follow-up ever done by the media as to whether the public service promises were kept, the story simply fades away.

So let’s be honest. These days, everyone knows why these little dances are done; it’s the how that’s making them ineffective. They’ve become too predictable:  the PR equivalent of crying innocent while hiring Mark Geragos. 

And they don’t take into account 24/7 media, bloggers, mash-ups, social networks and a slight but definite born-again public sense of right and wrong.

So let me violate every tentpole in this PR strategy for those about to embark on this path:

— Skip the sitdown. It’s only an imperative to the interviewers fighting over it. On his Aug. 18 episode, Larry King asked journalist/lawyer Jim Moret whether embattled Dr. Conrad Murray should make an appearance on a talk show — hint, hint — to fix his image. Moret, to his credit, said no. Unless you can manage to sound sincere and/or credible — as Vick clearly couldn’t — don’t do it. Instead, post a non-robotic video, a lengthy and unlawyered statement, do your own online chat. All will get the viral reach you want minus the agony of endless questions, awkward responses and dead air. I bet John Edwards wished he had a do-over.

— And do it promptly. Chris Brown’s apology five months after beating up Rihanna ranks as one of the dumbest entertainment PR moves of the decade. No matter what the lawyers want, there’s something that can said right away.

— No more tears, or anything else false. It’s impossible to believe that someone who spent so many years brutalizing animals and perfecting a “screw you” attitude in his professional and personal lives would choke up. While Hugh Grant’s appearance with Leno post-Divine Brown remains the Mt. Olympus of apologies and impossible to match, realize that the only person who really wants to see you deeply and truly repentant is your mother. 

— Please don’t help the victims. I’ve accepted that Mel Gibson just outright hates us Jews, but I didn’t want him showing up at my synagogue as penance. Vick’s the last person who should be allowed around those (particularly teens) who embrace dog fighting or animal abuse. That tit-for-tat PR tactic is phony. Instead, do something unrelated but actually useful: pick up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, make lunches at a homeless shelter or offer ordinary service – not celebrity value – to any organization where your motives and true beliefs aren’t suspect.

–But put your money where your mouth is. Even in a reduced role, Vick’s going to be bringing home a healthy paycheck from the Eagles. Rather than getting the mansion in Gladwyne and silver Bentley, let him carve off a big chunk for the shelter that took in the dogs rescued from his property, the anti-dogfighting activities of animal rights groups, programs that help ex-cons find work. When Stephen Bing quietly stepped up to cover the reported $200,000 cost of a private plane for Bill Clinton to bring Laura Ling and Euna Lee back from North Korea, we were reminded that he’s a dedicated philanthropist (OK, and also a longtime FOB). While being an asshole during two highly publicized paternity suits put Bing on many women’s shitlist Halls of Fame, this gesture made me reconsider him.

— Don’t buy your own spin. No matter what your lawyers, managers, agents or publicists tell you, the public isn’t going to believe you’re inspirational after all this. Remember that the reason people want to see Blago singing “Suspicious Minds” is not because he’s a great Elvis impersonator.

— And please don’t do “Dancing with the Stars.”

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.