There's little question that the Philadelphia Eagles complicated their PR playbook with the surprise signing of disgraced quarterback Michael Vick last night. The risky move carries the potential for both a tremendous upside and fiery publicity disaster.
In addition to a powerful left arm, unquestioned athleticism and quickness, the 29-year-old QB, who served 19 months in the federal pen for his role in a dog fighting ring, brings PR baggage to the City of Brotherly Love that is unparalleled in recent sports history. Even the confessed steroid cheats of baseball can hide behind the everyone-was-doing-it response.
Vick stands alone for the egregiousness of his crime.
The signing has sparked myriad emotions, some conflicting, across sports, media and PR.
Eric Schmeltzer, a Philadelphia PR pro, Eagles fan and dog owner, personifies the mix of emotions surrounding the team today.
“As a dog owner, it disgusts me,” he told O’Dwyer’s. “As a PR person, it confuses me. As a football fan, it excites me.”
Schmeltzer said the signing makes sense from a football perspective, but he wonders how much PR thought went into the move. “Especially if he messes up off the field, it will be one giant public relations nightmare, as Philadelphia fans and media are the toughest in sports,” he said.
PETA, which has been front-and-center in the PR barrage against Vick since he was indicted in '07, rehashed the QB’s offenses in its response to the Eagles signing. But Dan Shannon, assistant director of youth outreach and campaigns for the group, also tempered the PETA PR hammer a bit in expressing hope that Vick has learned his lesson and feels remorseful. The statement posted at 6:17 a.m. this morning had drawn 177 comments by midday. Multiply those comments by a million and you’ve got the reaction on Twitter.
So what are the Eagles to do?
We sent an email to Eagles PR chief Derek Boyko, but we suspect he may be a bit busy today.
Word around the league is that the Eagles’ media relations shop is among the National Football League’s most respected, but, as the Associated Press noted in announcing the signing, “even the team’s public relations staff seemed surprised.”
To its credit, the team’s website has been all over the story, providing reactions (all positive, of course) from the league commissioner, head coach, owner, and players. Vick said all the right things in a video posted on the site. In fact, it’s the digital playing field that will likely be a key part of the PR playbook.
Erin Byrne, chief digital strategist for Burson-Marsteller, said it’s important for Vick to continue to show remorse and how he has changed his life. “The Eagles are going to have to walk a fine line,” she said. “I’m sure their inclination is to manage the message, but their real opportunity is to put him out there and let him be very transparent with people. That’s the way he will become accepted again.”
The rise of social media makes that assignment both easier and tougher, said Byrne, who added that a key first step is the team listening to the criticism and overall reaction before moving forward.
“They can’t control it but they can be involved in it. In the digital realm, there is more opportunity for the team to reach fans and create dialogue in an open and honest way,” she said. “Digital is where the fans are going to be. But it is challenging because it’s not all positive – there are really strong opinions that the team and Vick have to come to grips with and that’s not going to be an easy thing.”