Sunday, February 01, 2009

Damage limitation was Michael Phelps' only option over News of the World cannabis bong exclusive

What must 14-times Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps be thinking today as he among the millions clicking on the News of the World's exclusive photograph of him appearing to be using a bong - or as they cunningly explains: 'The glass pipes are generally used to smoke cannabis.'

Whether Phelps did or didn't inhale is largely irrelevant as headlines spread across the web. Indeed the News of the World story never actually says he was smoking cannabis. The story will lead the majority of people to that conclusion, as will the photo below. But they never said it and that should delight their lawyers and insurance company in equal measure.

Morgan PR creates reputations, but we also protect them too and provide crisis management to a variety of clients and while we always prefer to be invited to calm the horses rather than pursuing the bolting variety, this does involve damage limitation too.

What is especially interesting in the News of the World story is how they also burn the PR company that tried to dig Phelps out of the monumental hole he had dived into. Normally the conversations between spin doctors and journalists happen in private and remain as such, regardless of the outcome. This is chiefly to preserve the relationship for future encounters.

However, take a look (if you haven't already read it) at the way it handled the pleading of the crisis manager trying to help Phelps:

Spokesman Clifford Bloxham offered us an extraordinary deal not to publish our story, saying Phelps would become our columnist for three years, host events and get his sponsors to advertise with us.

In return, he asked that we kill Phelps’ bong picture. Bloxham said: “It’s seeing if something potentially very negative for Michael could turn into something very positive for the News of the World.”

You have to hope that wasn't Bloxham's opening bid? To pay Phelps to pen a column for three years, taking his writing up to the 2012 Olympics in London, would cost a small fortune, likewise the hosting of events and how on earth advertisers would support this beggars belief. What is certainly shows is just how damaging they knew this story would be; what a splash it would make that would ripple through Phelps' career and unsettle sponsorship for £4 million. Therein lies the rub.

In reality there are stories so big, so juicy and so likely to appear elsewhere if a newspaper or other media take a pass, that crisis management is only ever going to be about damage limitation.

A better strategy here would have been what we call A&E - not so much Accident & Emergency, but it is just as much about immediate survival. For Morgan PR A&E is Acceptance and Explanation - once you accept that a story is going to appear, how can it be explained in a way that will be both plausible (if not honest!) and can begin to rehabilitate the media's target.

Obviously we are not privy to what Phelps did or didn't do at the party, but what evidence is out there? Is this the only photo? Is there video (no doubt the News of the World will follow this up next week)? And who are the witnesses and what motivation do they have? If you can answer these questions accurately then it is possible to start building a strategy for a healthy recovery.

What the prognosis for Phelps? It is hard to say with certainty - his talent is such that if drug tests remain clean then he should continue to flourish - albeit with frequent reference to this incident. Of course, if he fails a drug test, pulls out of any forthcoming events so he is not tested, or the News of the World has more tucked beneath its swim cap...

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