Shutting up is hard to do. But as any truly successful Type A knows, "listening" or at least the pretense of hearing is the skill of champions. When jocks, so-called "celebs," or third-rate politicians get into a jam, they too often open their mouths — or even worse, rely on unsophisticated PR advisors, agents, or by-the-book lawyers who think that getting their own names in the paper actually means they know what they are doing. More often than not, "the retainer" and "the billable hours" are the primary driving forces of "expert representation." So to all who are ever in need, here's some free advice from someone who has handled hundreds of crises for well-known folk: "Shut up!"
Some background: Before I started to direct films and write plays, I spent 20 years heading my own crisis communication firm in New York. I repped governors, U.S. senators, mayors, heads of networks, studios and record companies, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar winners, and even the lawyers who repped all of them. I never liked doing the "talking head/expert advice/Monday-morning dissection of the crisis" bit on TV. That was all about gaining personal notoriety and filling up time for a network segment producer, who would sit me next to a fool whose advice I wouldn't take to cross the street. These days, when I read the quotes from so-called "PR experts," most of whom I have never even heard of, my stomach churns. Believe me, you can handle this as if you were DiMaggio. Unfortunately, most cases are handled as if the work were done by Craig Counsell.
For what it's worth, here's my free advice to Ari Fleischer, overinflated Hollywood "publicists," one-person shop "entrepreneurs" who sleep with lazy reporters, "strategists" who smeared Caroline Kennedy and/or professors of PR out of Syracuse: Just shut up. It's OK to dupe the public and scribes, but leave vulnerable clients alone. Just tell them the truth: You're not that smart and you don't really know what you're doing.
Case 1: A-Rod
His personal "PR guru" (the single most overrated term I know) should have just told the truth from the get-go. "Yeah, he played poker — Who cares?" Instead, I suspect at the advice of numerous drone-head lawyers, team officials, and an agent, the brain trust came up with an innovative three-pronged "Boys Club" strategy that managed to give life to the story. First, they denied. Then they questioned or fudged their own "firm denial." And later they refused to comment on their own denial or the fudging of it. This moronic process stretched out for 10 days, an eternity during which "the guru" (and his friends and enemies) got to read his own name in the paper.
A-Rod seems to trust his "guru." My guess is that stems from the front-page New York Daily News story the latter planted during the slugger's divorce talks a year or so ago. They must have both gotten a big kick and perverse high from the piece that denigrated the mother of his two children for the alleged "crime" of spending an unsubstantiated $100,000 on a Paris shopping spree. That "plant," according to the unwritten rule book not taught at schools of higher learning, was designed to intimidate the little woman into making a settlement deal pronto (not that she hadn't suffered enough by witnessing tabloid photos of hubby with strippers and middle-aged pop stars). The not-so-subtle threat was that if she didn't succumb, then more "dirt" (true or false) would follow. The strategy worked to perfection. The "plant" was also designed to give "the guru" — and with him, the soulless Rodriguez — favor with the News, offering it as "an exclusive." Such negotiations are common, each side swimming in delusions of piety. Further, "the guru" was able to trick both himself and his client into believing that they wouldn't be revealed as the source of the Donald Segretti-type leak because he and his Daddy rep the New York Post, the chief competition to the News. The Machiavellian thinking went as such: "Alex, if we give the dirt to the Post, her side will know 'we' did it, so let me make a deal with the News. This way, no one will figure out you and I were behind it." Wrong. I did. It was way too obvious.
Final note on Mr. Rodriguez, "the guru," and the New York media: At the third baseman's fake mea culpa "I did juice but never in pinstripes" news conference two years ago, they brought in a prop in the form of the father of a teenage boy who died of steroid abuse. Forget the poor taste, stupidity, and vile exploitation of this poor man, but to top it all, A-Rod "announced" (well, he read from his prepared script) that he would "from here on in" make it his mission to prevent youngsters from doing steroids. Anyone read or heard one word of that promise since?
Case 2: Plaxico Burress
Now that the historian/wide receiver Plaxico Burress has caught some preseason passes, here's an order: "Quiet." The silly, gun-toting parolee was on a semi-Tiki Barber-like media tour, highlighted by his one-on-one with HBO's Bryant Gumbel, still the best in the business. One problem, though: Good ol' Plax has zero appeal (unless he surprises the gridiron world and catches 50 to 75 passes for the Jets during the regular season). In his explanation as to exactly how and why he shot himself in the leg 2½ years ago, Burress managed to blame his "harsh" sentencing on New York City's Mayor Michael "who I never even heard of" Bloomberg. Put aside that Plax had been playing in the same city as Mike ruled for years, but the law is the law. An alleged firearm in Bloomberg's town is a bad, bad thing. Despite his fame on the field, the felon should have left his automatic at home. I mean, who advises this fool to blame his notoriety on a mayor he'd "never even heard of"? As a result, we need to ask the same dimwit handlers to give Bore-ess a current events quiz before he does a one-on-one sit-down with Brandon Steiner in front of a specially invited "TimesTalks" promotion. If Bore-ess, the onetime student athlete, can tell us the name of the vice president, governor of New York, and secretary of state, then I'll buy 50 tickets to further fund the Times lectures. If not, he never does an interview all year and promises to bury his gun collection for good.
Case 3: Albert Haynesworth/Carlos Zambrano
These multimillionaire jokesters need to do something greater, grander, than merely "be quiet." They must seek, find, and commit themselves to psychotherapy three or four times a week. While this form of live couples' therapy would make for a great reality TV show on MTV, these guys have serious behavioral issues almost guaranteeing a stretch in the slammer once what's left of their respective careers is over. Are you listening, DeMarcus Cousins? The right meds can help save a life.
The great thing about the 350-pound Haynesworth, the football version of Eddie Curry, is that he managed to fleece Mean Dan Snyder, the Redskins' fun-loving spoiled boy and litigation-mad bully owner into "rewarding" him with a $140 million contract. I like that. Snyder lives for the photo op: Tom Cruise, Donnie Rumsfeld (name the worst free-agent signings), Fat Albert. By some acts of God, the brilliant Belichick of New England took a chance on Haynesworth this season, a move comparable to Steve Howe's fifth, sixth, and seventh opportunities to stay straight and revive his career. It's not working out.
Zambrano, on the other hand, is wildly entertaining — that is, to everyone but his Cubs teammates, coaches, manager, and opposing players. I love that he just packs up and quits, goes headhunting in meaningless games, and bitch slaps his battery mates. Soon, in spite of his Haynesworth-like contract, some other team will take a chance on him. But the only way that can happen is if he visits the couch on a regular basis to figure out his Freudian issues. In the meantime, Vince McMahon ought to be thinking about this duo as a bad guy tag-team act.
Case 4: Brett Favre Is MIA
Now here's a narcissist who suddenly got smart. I don't want to be cynical, but perhaps the roving QB figured out, at the urging of his wife, he had to stop tweeting single women pictures of his body parts 'cause it wasn't good for the family or his future career in the broadcasting booth. At the same time, his lawyers may have figured out that the more he's out there talking about coming back, denying he's coming back, planting rumors about coming back, the greater the chances for other personal scandals to be made public. Shhh boy. If you found a PR consultant who recommended you disappear from the public eye for a year, then give him a raise. Step 2, however, needs to adhere to the following plan:
(a) Spend the offseason hunting with your local buddies.
(b) Take the wife on a few Caribbean vacations.
(c) At the end of the regular season, do an exclusive one-on-one with either Gumbel or Jeremy Schaap to talk about the "lessons you learned," your new humility, your love of family, and God. Oh — and one more thing — don't you dare set this up at a Greenwich Boys & Girls Club.
(d) Follow up with an exclusive one-on-one with a Green Bay reporter, emphatically insisting "your heart was always there."
(e) Before you get into the Hall of Fame, do an exclusive one-on-one with a Minneapolis reporter and talk about those days with the team being among your happiest.
(f) One week before your induction, find a fluff-ball NYC reporter. Who? How about Michael Kay at the YES Network. Do an exclusive one-on-one talking about your love for the Jets, and then handle Kay's fast balls: Your favorite food is chicken fried steak. Movie star? Brad Pitt. TV show? Family Guy.
Case 5: NBA Players/Owners
The Owners "get it." This is a real lockout with significant long-term implications. My hunch: no season, period. But unlike the foolish NFL strategy in which Roger Goodell and his handlers thought that it would be a good idea to have 30 billionaires morph into TV talking heads, ostensibly to gain the public's sympathy, David Stern is too smart for that. I mean, what was Goodell thinking? Is there one working-class American who really cares about Jerry Jones' economic problems? The gridiron commissioner was deceived by his outside PR consultants, who went around town bragging about how smart they were. What Goodell didn't understand was that the strategy of "media hit," "placement," "getting owners free TV time regionally and nationally" was quietly designed to form 30 new relationships for his consultants, thus 30 possible new business clients.
Here's how the script reads:
NFL Outside PR Consultant (on phone to Jerry Jones): Jerry, I'm not sure you have the time, but just in case, the Today Show would love to interview you tomorrow live during the 7:45 a.m. slot.
Jerry Jones: Sure. Sure. (Hangs up, calls Commissioner Goodell.) Roger, I really like those PR fellows you brought in.
Back to the business of hoops. Owners get an A-plus for shutting up. The players' union — oops, sorry, "association" — get your act together. The average salary of your members is a paltry $5.7 million per year. When almost everyone in the country except investment bankers, hedge fund bores, and social-climbing, previously ignored reality TV dopes have no money, this is not a good thing. Only unsophisticated sports writers, who fall for your talking points, buy into the fallacy that owners are making money while their workers (players) enjoy the most one-sided profit-sharing agreement since Khrushchev ran the Kremlin. If fans want to see a 2011-12 season, or even a 2012-13 season, get hip: The current system is broken. For Billy Hunter, next time you invite the likes of Sebastian Telfair (yet another gun-toting fool) and Mr. LaLa Vasquez into a negotiating session, make certain they exit through a back door. Carmelo Anthony as a source of sympathy, clarity, and belief is, well, I like Billy, so I'll be kind "not too smart." My advice: Derek Fisher is your talking head, and the longer this goes, the less anyone but Stephen A. is going to care about your players.
Case 6: Miami, LSU, UNC, Tennessee
Why would the NCAA expect any intercollegiate athletic program to abide by "the rules" when they have for decades ignored, placated, and in a sense encouraged an atmosphere in which favoritism and ignorance defined the environment? Coaches need players to win, thus keeping their jobs. Universities need programs because they generate millions of dollars. Players have accepted cash, girls, grades, gifts, no-show jobs, and stipends forever. Forever. In the good ol' days of Howie Garfinkel, Rodney Parker, Freddy the Spook, Harry Gotkin, Manny Goldstein, Sam Gilbert, guys who Dick Schaap labeled "flesh peddlers," players were paid through a second channel, and the "peddler" just demanded access. These days, the AAU system, run by a collection of phony, overweight, nacho-eating slobs who begin to solicit the services of second graders while conning families into thinking they actually know the game, has permanently embedded a culture of 24-hour payoffs. Thus, the athlete doesn't merely expect freebies, he's got Ma, Pa, high school buddies, coaches, uncles, and aunts with their hands out, too.
So Miami cheated! Maybe a tiny bit more than almost everybody else. So UNC cheated! So did Ohio State, LSU, Tennessee. Now, their only public argument is the truth: We did. And we will fire the AD and the coaching staff and take away the offenders' scholarships. And then everybody has to change the rules. Until then, the only option is to do the opposite of Miami — two days after the scandal broke, all sorts of former coaches (Jimmy Johnson) were used as surrogates blaming the "slimeball whistle-blower." Come clean, take the penalty, accept the punishment no matter how severe, clean your dirty house. As for the coaches who get the boot, tell the truth: I did everything in the name of "fear, self-preservation, and winning. I'm human."
Dan Klores is a filmmaker and playwright. His new play, The Wood, about the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike McAlary, opens at the Rattlestick Theater in New York this week.
Previously from Dan Klores:
Mind Over Media: Shoot the Handlers
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