Monday, February 22, 2010

It’s Time to Talk About the Past: Mark McGwire’s Steroid Admission & Media Strategy

Last week, former Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire admitted he used performance enhancing drugs during his career. The admission by the onetime single-season homerun leader did not surprise many as there had been a cloud of speculation surrounding the subject for over a decade. Rather, it is the manner in which “Big Mac” chose for coming clean and his statements about steroids having no effect on his performance that have drawn the most scrutiny, especially in the public relations industry and by the media, which The SportsBusiness Daily's Erik Swanson wrote about earlier this week.

We are a society that loves to forgive our athletes and celebrities. We want them to tell us they are sorry, make us believe in their contrition and choose to give them another chance. The owner of the top selling jersey in the NBA, Los Angeles Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant, and 2010 Golden Globe winning actor Robert Downey, Jr. validate that point.

And when they apologize to us, we don’t want to just see statements on Internet sites (yes, we’re talking to you Tiger Woods) or a press conference where they read a prepared statement. A true apology comes from the heart, not a typed sheet of paper.

All that being said, McGwire coming forward on the issue was the right thing to do, especially as he prepares to return to MLB this year as the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting instructor. Without this admission, spring training would have been a media circus and he would have been a huge distraction to the team. Questions will still arise in camp, but the amount will be greatly diminished now that McGwire has spoken about his steroid use.

Once he made the decision to speak, it was imperative to develop a plan for how and where the message would best be delivered. According to The New York Times, McGwire hired former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to help him to do just that. The strategy involved exclusively breaking the news with an Associated Press (AP) story, followed that evening by a sit-down television interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network.

Considering the magnitude of the story and its far reaching appeal, many public relations professionals argue that breaking the story with the AP made sense. However, the case exists that McGwire’s strategy may have been better suited to also include The St. Louis Post Dispatch. This outlet was the local paper covering him during the latter part of his controversial career as a player, and is the hometown paper for where McGwire is now employed. Media feeds off media, and in today’s instant news and Internet-driven world, the print story would have garnered similar coverage and generated stories in other mediums, while taking care of a key local media outlet in the market where McGwire played and will coach. In our day and age there is no such thing as “local” press… everything is instantly shared via social media and the internet. I am guessing that the St. Louis media felt slighted by McGwire, and for good reason.

At Maroon PR, we always stress to our clients that it’s important to never forget or overlook the media where they live, work, run their business, etc. For example, when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record and when he was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he carved out time for each of the local networks in Baltimore and Washington, DC. When Team USA forward Carmelo Anthony won a gold medal at the 2008 summer Olympics, he returned to his hometown of Baltimore to meet with the media and discuss the achievement.

The second part of McGwire’s strategy was granting the first television interview to Costas. The SportsBusiness Daily cited a source close to the strategy as saying Costas would have been the first choice, regardless of the network for which he worked. Nonetheless, MLB Network getting the interview was a major land for the young, league-owned network and the choice of Costas as the interviewer was a good one by McGwire’s team.

Costas himself has practically become a brand. From anchoring NBC’s Olympic and Sunday Night Football coverage, to his MLB Network show and previous experience with HBO, he’s well respected as a journalist and provided McGwire with a credible avenue for his admission. Choosing a person they knew would serve “softball” questions and not probe McGwire would have been ineffective. You may recall that many in the media felt ESPN’s Peter Gammons (now at MLB Network by the way) was too easy on Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez during their television one-on-one in February 2009 when he admitted to taking steroids. But Costas’ questioning of McGwire was determined and inquisitive, while not attacking. Public perception of the validity of McGwire’s admission is also aided when the audience believes the interviewer is reliable and legitimate. Another example of someone who did this effectively is Michael Vick when he sat down with James Brown for a 60 Minutes interview prior to his return to the NFL after a dog-fighting scandal and prison term.

Managing the distribution and ensuring the message was delivered effectively were the two key pieces of the strategy regarding McGwire’s admission. Therefore, a press conference would not have been the appropriate strategy. Between the massive amount of media who would converge on the event and the format a press conference provides, it would have been impossible for the “human element” of the story to be conveyed.

Moving away from the strategy, McGwire made some critical missteps during the interview itself. He did appear emotional, repeatedly said he was sorry and apologized to the people he “let down.” However, his insistence that his records were “completely legit” and that his hand-eye coordination and God-given ability were not aided by his use of PEDs was a mistake. If you are going to apologize, go the whole way. Don’t diminish your remorse by saying injuries made you do steroids and that your performance wasn’t impacted by their use. Through these statements, and his mention of the Hall of Fame, McGwire diminished his contriteness and missed a golden opportunity to get everything out in the open and truly move on from the subject.

Tim Richardson is the Executive Vice President of Maroon PR and oversees the Sports & Entertainment Division. You can contact him at

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