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You Had Me at Oh, No: PR Lessons from Sports Professions

Posted At: April 9, 2008 12:24 PM
by Anthony Greer

Jerry Maguire sure makes it look easy. A handsome, up-and-coming sports agent takes a stand against dishonesty in client representation, gambles his whole career on his integrity (and a brash young football star) and manages to come out the other side greatly successful. Unfortunately it’s not that easy, and modern sports stars’ representatives constantly provide the public relations audience with examples of how not to represent a client. Though not bound by the same ethical codes as public relations practitioners, athletes’ representatives are often tasked with their clients’ image control. Thus, we as public relations practitioners stand to learn from the successes and failures of these image control campaigns.

In the midst of the 2005 National Football League season, All-Star Terrell Owens was involved in a physical altercation in the locker room with teammate Hugh Douglas. He also publicly criticized his team’s quarterback and organization, resulting in his suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. Owens, having already muddied his relationship with the Philadelphia Eagles following an extensive contract dispute, would be forced to sit out the remainder of the season and perhaps be released by the organization at season’s end. Repairing the damage he had done to his reputation and to the Philadelphia Eagles organization would prove to be a daunting task.

His representative, Drew Rosenhaus, is notorious around the league for being a giant hurdle in the way of negotiations. He constantly supports long-term holdouts and refuses to settle until he maximizes client profit. On this occasion, he made the crucial mistake of making his client and himself look foolish. Following Owens’ exceptionally brief apology to the organization and the fans, Rosenhaus fielded questions from the media on behalf of his client. His now famous disregarding response of “next question” to nearly every inquiry the media made decimated the credibility and sincerity of Owens’ apology. By denying the free flow of information and by taking a standoffish platform, Rosenhaus ignored public interest and further damaged his and Owens’ reputations.

In more recent news, the crusade against steroids in Major League Baseball pressed forward with the FBI’s perjury investigation of Roger Clemens. Clemens was a safe bet for the Hall of Fame prior to recent accusations of performance-enhancing drug use. Clemens’ lawyer Rusty Hardin has managed to do little in repairing Clemens’ reputation and has probably done more harm than good. Since being hired to defend Clemens, Hardin has called Clemens’ trainer and accuser Brian McNamee “slanderous,” claimed Senator George Mitchell’s steroid report “false” and threatened Representative Henry Waxman. Such aggressive tactics, being quite risky to begin with, appear to be doing exponentially more damage to both Clemens’ and Hardin’s careers now that Congress has apparently sided with McNamee and Mitchell and launched a criminal perjury investigation against Clemens.

Public relations practitioners must learn from the apparent errors of some of the nation’s most traditionally successful representatives. Drew Rosenhaus is widely renowned as one of the best football agents in the industry, yet his regrettable lockdown mentality concerning the Owens debacle unfortunately remains one the most memorable media blunders in modern times. Rusty Hardin has numerous achievements in legal victory, yet his latest fiasco with Clemens has several legal analysts calling for his retirement. Both representatives utilized overly aggressive tactics with varying yet constant degrees of failure. As public relations students, educators and practitioners, we must remember to advocate the best interest of our clients and be aware of and adhere to the highest standards of truth and accuracy.

Should every practitioner of image control be held to the same ethical code or should it be circumstantial?

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