The Sport of Reputation Management

Pro sports organizations could use a few hours with a reputation management expert ala Andy Beal.

In the last few months, we have seen the sports world being devastated by its own lack of transparency. It is something we as marketers are learning to cope with now, but these multi-billion dollar leagues are still not catching on.

The online sports world continues to grow.

Blogs, forums, online gambling, and fantasy sports news and games abound.

Sites such as Deadspin.com rank amongst the most popular blogs on the Web, and they are almost completely supplied content by the fact that pro sports organizations and athletes do not understand the concept of transparency.

Its not what you say.

Example being Curt Schilling, a media lightning rod and pitcher for the Boston Red Sox that has his own blog and lets the world know his controversial thought process.

Its what you don’t say.

Example Barry Bonds, an equally polarizing figure as Curt Schilling, becoming a pariah because he is about as transparent as 10 feet of galvanized steel.

There have been two major circumstances in the last few months that have truly cemented the need of those connected with pro sports to approach their reputation management in a manner other than they currently do.

Spy Gate

Early during last year’s football season, the New England Patriots were caught filming the New York Jet’s sidelines in an attempt to steal defensive signals, a punishable NFL offense. Since the coaches of the NFL had been warned about the issue, Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, levied a heavy penalty against the team stripping them of their first round draft choice, fining the coach Bill Bellicheck $500,000, and fining the organization $250,000.

The next step for Goodell was a huge blunder in transparency.

He had all video equipment taken from the Patriots, and after reviewing many tapes, he destroyed them.

“I have nothing to hide,” Goodell said, “I think it was the right thing to do.”

If Goodell knew anything about transparency he would have known the best thing to do would be to put those videos on a video blog page attached to NFL.com. It would have ended the whole situation months ago, if there was nothing to hide.

But he didn’t.

He destroyed the tapes, and allowed internet rumors to circle. He also opened the door for further speculation by the Boston Herald that New England had won their first super bowl in 2002 using footage of a pre-game walk through by the NFC Champion St. Louis Rams.

This speculation turned out to be false, but it doesn’t matter, because Goodell was not transparent, and now the Patriots winning ways will always be in question.

The Downfall of Clemens

In today’s sports market, the athletes themselves are corporate entities.

Someone should have told Roger Clemens the rules of transparency before he sunk the value of his corporation.

After the Mitchell Report, the report about the use of steroids and performance enhancers in the MLB, was released to the public, Roger Clemens went on a crusade to clear his name. He had been indicated in the report as being a steroid user, and took aim at Brian McNamee, a former personal trainer, in an attempt to clean up his reputation.

What he should have done is be transparent.

The evidence is overwhelming in the favor of Clemens having taken steroids to extend his career. I feel that if he had been transparent, and come to the microphone and professed what he had done as being wrong, he would have been forgiven and salvaged his legacy.

Instead he put himself in front of the media, and at the same time began to proceed with a defamation case against McNamee.

The first thing a defamation defense does is dig up skeletons on the plaintiff, and Clemens had more than a few. Stories of his indiscretions were making daily rotations in the New York Daily News. Women were coming out of the wood work to offer their stories about run ins with “The Rocket.”

His lack of transparency could also land him in legal trouble due to the implications of perjury.

He once again has tried to clean up his reputation by stating:

“I know that many people want to know what I have to say about the recent articles in the media. Even though these articles contain many false accusations and mistakes, I need to say that I have made mistakes in my personal life for which I am sorry,” Clemens said.

This apology still seems to lack complete transparency, so Clemens will likely deal with months of ongoing scrutiny from blogs and forums, forgoing reputation management for the destruction of a legacy.

These events can teach organization both small and large not only the ability of the online media to destroy a reputation, and put a seed of doubt into the customers mind, but also where the points of transparency were completely missed.

If Goodell had been transparent with the discovered Patriots videos the Spy Gate scandal likely goes away for ever, months before the Super Bowl, and the allegations resurfaced.

If Clemens is transparent about possible steroid use, he is able to salvage his dignity, and keep his skeletons in his closet.

Once the moment of transparency has passed there is no way to retrieve it. If Clemens came out now and admitted to steroid use it would look like a clumsy maneuver that would likely earn him prison time for perjury. If Goodell now came forward with tapes to prove the Spy Gate issue was not as big as many have made it out to be, then people would likely question the authenticity of the tapes.

Pro sports organizations, like all companies, need to learn how to cope with the new media and the citizen journalist. Anyone can talk about you, and creating a wall of secrecy only allows that discussion to grow. This is a radically transparent business environment, and sports organizations and athletes will need to learn how to survive in it to keep from destroying their own enterprises.