by Steve Adubato, PhD
Sometimes, when professionals are under heavy pressure because of a mistake they’ve made, they can say all the right things, be effectively coached to communicate in public, and still get a very mixed reaction.
Consider the case with Michael Vick, who was embarrassed big-time when it was found out that he was running a dog fighting ring, in which horrific things were being done to the “competing” dogs, whether they won or not. Vick was charged, convicted and did some pretty hard time in jail.
However, this case is about a lot more than just another disgraced professional athlete. In Vick’s case, because of his barbaric dog fighting ring, he lost a $135 million dollar contract with the Atlanta Falcons.
However, what was just as bad as his actions was his failure to step up and communicate in an honest fashion to Falcons owner Arthur Blank about the whole situation. When confronted by his boss, he lied to his face. He denied everything.
So, while we saw Michael Vick on 60 Minutes recently doing his best to communicate how remorseful he was, like so many who make big-time mistakes, it felt like he was more sorry about getting caught than for what he did. No matter how many years after Richard Nixon contributed to the most publicized cover-up in American history, the Michael Vicks of the world still don’t seem to understand that the “cover-up is always worse than the crime”. If Vick had told his bosses with the Atlanta Falcons that the charges against him were true, instead of telling them he was a victim of circumstance, we would have a lot more sympathy for him.
So as I watched him on 60 Minutes, I could see that he was well-coached. His communication was concise and to the point. He clearly had practiced answering these questions. When asked by CBS’ James Brown if his actions demonstrated a “lack of moral character because you didn’t stop it,” Vick immediately responded, without equivocation; “I agree.” Further, when he was asked by Brown; “Who do you blame for all this,” once again, to his credit, Vick said; “I blame me.”
In a couple of other instances during the 60 Minutes interview, Vick gave direct responses to tough questions. One just wonders why, in cases like this, the Michael Vicks of the world don’t realize that the sooner they take responsibility for their own actions and communicate in a forthright and honest fashion, the sooner they can begin the process of rehabbing their public image and brand.
For many, particularly hardcore animal lovers, no matter how Michael Vick handled this situation, he was going to be “Public Enemy #1.” But for those of us who could have been more understanding (while still be disgusted by his actions) he would have gotten more support from us if he had communicated the way he did on 60 Minutes two years ago when this whole thing broke.
I understand that lawyers often tell clients to either reply with “no comment” or to deny all charges. They also sometimes tell clients to look for a scapegoat. I imagine this approach may work in potentially limiting criminal or legal liability, but it is one of the dumbest media and communication strategies ever concocted.
The irony is that no matter how many times we see cases like this where people screw up and refuse to take responsibility up front— then suffer greater public humiliation by not owning up and communicating candidly— they continue to use this ineffective and counter-productive communication strategy.