Thursday, March 24, 2005

Reputations are under heavy fire. Legacies are at stake.Professional damage control experts are salivating.”We’re coming into our busy season,” quips Christopher Bonner, president of Bonner Consultants, a McLean firm that offers “reputation management” advice to corporations and associations.

Industry captains such as former Enron chief executive Kenneth Lay and former WorldCom honcho Bernie Ebbers are embroiled in the legal fallout of various corporate meltdowns. Retired slugger Jose Canseco wrote a tell-all fingering Oakland A’s teammate Mark McGwire for steroid use. In testimony before Congress, Mr. McGwire tearfully evaded questions on the subject, triggering a galactic shift in the public’s opinion of him.

According to USA Today polling, in December 1998 — the year he broke Roger Maris’ single-season record for home runs — 87 percent had a favorable opinion of Mr. McGwire. After his recent testimony under oath before a House panel, that number plummeted to 53 percent.

Need we mention pop king Michael Jackson, on trial for child molestation charges in Santa Maria, Calif.? Or Martha Stewart, currently under house arrest after her release from prison?

Damage control contractors can’t reveal their clients, past or present, but they can talk in generalities about strategy, other case histories and industry lore.

When prospective clients come to him, the first thing crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall does is temper their expectations. “You have to look at the origins of the term ‘damage control,’” he says. “In the Navy, when your ship got hit by a torpedo, your objective was to live, not to get the ship back to where it was pre-torpedo. That’s the great myth of crisis management.”

For example, if the actor Robert Blake came to him, seeking counsel on how to repair his image now that he’s been found not guilty of his wife’s murder, Mr. Dezenhall wouldn’t make grand promises of reclamation. He’d be practical. “Robert Blake’s aim right now should be to pay his bills,” he says.

Mr. Dezenhall’s next step is to ask two essential questions. First: Do we like you? Second: Are you being accused of something that we didn’t already know about you?

“The American public is far more offended by inconsistency than by naughty behavior,” says Mr. Dezenhall, head of the District-based Dezenhall Resources and a part-time novelist.

In other words: Hypocrisy is often a greater vice than vice itself, which is why former President Clinton was able to survive the intern sex scandal — people may have been repulsed by it, but no one was surprised by it.

The same logic helps explain why Mr. McGwire may be in big trouble. Mr. Clinton had established a kind of winking relationship with the American public about his peccadilloes.

Not so the record-breaking slugger. There was no tincture of the anti-hero in Mr. McGwire. He was a superhero in spikes. Mr. McGwire was so vanilla he could’ve been a pitchman for milk. Come to think of it, he was.

Worse for Mr. McGwire, he can’t argue — as Mr. Clinton’s defenders were wont to do — that his transgression was incidental to the professional feats that underlie his fame. If he was on the juice, his professional legacy itself is irremediably compromised.

Mr. Bonner maintains that had Miss Stewart admitted guilt right away, she could’ve avoided prison. The first thing he suggests to clients is: “Stop the bleeding. Come clean, say you’re sorry and get on with life.

“Turning on the mercy of the general public has always been a very good tactic,” he says. “The capacity of the public to forgive — look at Bill Clinton — is bottomless, matched only by the arrogance of very rich, very powerful people” such as Mr. Lay and Mr. Ebbers, both of whom, Mr. Bonner believes, have tried to stonewall their way out of trouble.

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent would’ve had the same advice for Mr. McGwire. “I think it would have been a lot better for him to say, ‘I did it, and I’m sorry,’” he said.

Mr. Dezenhall disagrees, at least in the case of Miss Stewart. He reasons: “I think that her greatest equity is that her core audience believes she was railroaded. You can’t apologize for something you say you didn’t do.”

He has his doubts about whether Miss Stewart can mount a full recovery. Indeed, he doesn’t believe image makeovers are truly possible; crises can be managed, but time is the only resuscitator.

Frank Kauffman, a partner at the international communications firm Fleishman-Hillard, points to actor Hugh Grant and 1980s “junk bond king” Michael Milken as possible greatest-comeback candidates.

After he was caught consorting with a Hollywood prostitute in 1995, Mr. Grant poked fun at himself on “soft forums” such as “The Tonight Show” and “Larry King Live.”

It worked.

“Most stars go into seclusion and don’t talk and get angry and attack the media,” crisis consultant Howard Rubinstein said of Mr. Grant at the time. “He did the reverse. He apologized right away, he went on every talk show possible, he apologized to his girlfriend, and the public applauded him.”

Mr. Kauffman says a regimen of good old-fashioned charity — including philanthropic ventures that benefit cancer survivors and early childhood education — went a long way toward rehabilitating Mr. Milken’s image.

“Milken, it seems, has made the classic American transformation from despised villain to ‘controversial’ figure; he’s now the subject of debate, not an object of scorn. It’s a transformation that would have made Richard Nixon proud,” wrote Edward Cohn in the American Prospect magazine in 2000.

If he is acquitted — which looks increasingly likely — Mr. Jackson can turn to his friend Mr. Milken for advice on giving his money away. Except that it’s not clear he’ll have much left to give.

If convicted, he can turn to Mr. Milken for advice on coping with life in the cooler.

Guilty or not, Mr. Jackson’s career was in free-fall even before his current troubles began — and no amount of crisis management can transform a creatively spent and emotionally fragile has-been back into the King of Pop.

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