Celebrity Scandals Call for Damage Control

By Maria Pierson

Athletes have been making news for all of the wrong reasons over the last few months. While that’s not necessarily an anomaly, it did cause many to question how Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and Dan Marino handled their newsworthy confessions. In fact, because the Dan Marino story became hot news in South Florida, both WPLG and the Miami Herald asked Pierson Grant for comment.

Pierson Grant CEO Maria Pierson being interviewed by WPLG Local 10 News’ Todd Tongen

As an agency that counsels companies, elected officials and others on issues management, we base our advice on a few rules that everyone, including athletes, should follow.

1) The truth will set you free. The truth will come out – maybe not now, not next week or next year, but it eventually bubbles to the top. Just ask Lance Armstrong. If you want to mitigate the damage, then you need to conduct the conversation on your own terms and not have your position defined by the media. If you speak up immediately and tell the truth, the media fervor dies down faster than if you try to evade the issue and fudge your response. Manti Te’o went days without addressing the media, which led to speculation, rumors and stories that eventually spiraled out of control. Dan Marino, on the other hand, made a statement the moment the news broke. The result was coverage that day and nothing else in the days following. His image took the immediate hit, but the story did not drag on. Tell the truth and move on.

2) Communicate you message clearly, concisely and immediately. Identify no more than three main talking points and let them become the answers to every question you are asked.

3) Be contrite, sincere, and, if needed, apologetic and remorseful. The public wants to know you care. They want to know you have feelings. It’s okay to show emotion.

4) It helps to have a sterling reputation. Manti Te’o was the Heisman Trophy runner up and played for the number one team in the country. He’s a well-spoken college kid who portrayed good leadership skills and was never in trouble. Dan Marino is one of the most likable football players nationally and especially in South Florida. He was always friendly and willing to sign autographs. Lance Armstrong, on the other hand, became notorious, and not just for winning several Tour de France titles.

5) Establish a community presence. The Livestrong Foundation is one thing that Lance Armstrong did right and should be commended for. It should survive his admissions of guilt and is likely the only good news in his otherwise monumental fall from grace. Dan Marino, who has a son with autism, built a solid reputation in South Florida for his focus on helping children with autism. He and his wife single-handedly brought awareness to that issue.

Companies, organizations and high-profile individuals are wise to make robust community relations or cause related marketing part of their DNA. That way, they have plenty of trust and good will “in the bank” when a damaging issue threatens their reputation.

Will the crisis be a long, drawn out saga that fuels the news cycle for weeks or a flash of bad news that explodes and disappears quickly? It depends on whether you handle it right.