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McGwire PR Strategy Misses The Mark

Somehow, I expected more of Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer, who served as George Bush’s Press Secretary for two years (which is like 10 years in real time), knows a thing or two about PR and messaging. But, his coaching seemed to fall short for his client Mark McGwire this week when McGwire tried to come clean and apologize for his use of illegal steroids in the nineties.

Maybe the strike-out isn’t Fleischer’s fault. After all, it’s not as if he had much practice in “apology communications” under The Decider. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a mess like Mark Sanford’s fiasco of a press conference. In fact, from a execution perspective, the media relations piece was by-the-book. It started with the release of a statement to the Associated Press, followed by one-on-one print interviews and culminated with a tearful televised sit-down with Bob Costas.

But, no matter who’s keeping score, McGwire’s confession and apology was a case of too little, too late. When we last saw him, it was during the 2005 Congressional hearings on steroid use in pro baseball. Citing legal advice, McGwire refused to respond to questions about his own steroid use, offering only the infamous statement, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” In this situation, as in so many others, what may have been the safest legal strategy was in direct conflict with the classic rules of the public relations game. From a credibility perspective, McGwire would have been better off getting things off his brawny chest then and there.

McGwire was in a legal bind, so maybe it couldn’t be helped. But, by waiting nearly five years to confess what everyone already knew, he raises questions about his motivation. The delay makes it look like he finally stepped up to the plate to smooth the way for his re-entry into the sport, and possibly even to try to boost his Hall of Fame chances.

What struck me and others as an even bigger miss was McGwire’s messaging. He seemed to be making excuses for what he did rather than just taking responsibility. He claimed he injected the drugs to stay healthy and speed healing from injuries, not to enhance his batting performance. This seems pretty disingenuous, and, of course, it tries to skirt the obvious question that he should address more candidly – would McGwire have broken records without a little help from his “friends”? While I give him points for calling Roger Maris’ widow, the call only serves to reinforce what most people see as a tainted legacy.

Maybe, as Commissioner Bud Selig suggests, the steroid confessions are good for baseball and have helped clean up the sport. But, I think McGwire’s half-baked apology falls short by sending a mixed message to kids, the very people he should be influencing to walk away from performance-enhancing drugs. From a communications perspective, it looks like somebody dropped the ball.

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