It’s a shame that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has taken a hit (so to speak) and lost a key endorsement over a few puffs of (illicit) smoke. But, there are more than a few lessons in his experience.
For years, clients have asked us about the risks and benefits of linking their brand with a celebrity. For the record, I believe when there is real relevance, the deal is properly structured and the individual fully vetted, the risk of a Phelps-type incident is still low, despite widely-publicized examples to the contrary.
But the Phelps kerfuffle is one more reminder that there is no such thing as private behavior, particularly for those whose names and accomplishments are marketable commodities. Any public figure or future officeholder who has cheated on a spouse, used illegal drugs, “forgotten” to pay taxes, or committed any other indiscretion must expect the behavior to become public, and to act quickly when it does. (Are you listening, Christian Bale?)
That’s the reason President Obama smartly exercised advance damage control by mentioning his youthful drug use in his biography, and why NY Governor David Patterson felt compelled to call a press conference to tell us more than we ever wanted to know about his extramarital activity.
Phelps isn’t old enough to have a checkered past (and he probably deserves some fun after so many years of dedicated training), but it’s beyond naiveté to assume that private behavior is ever truly private, then or now. Whether we like it or not, in the YouTube culture, those days are over.