PR Rogues

Three months ago, I would have loved to be David Stern, Roger Goodell, Arthur Blank or Bud Selig. These days, however, I would not want to trade places with any of them.

Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, held a press conference earlier this week to speak about an investigation into whether one of his league’s referees affected the outcome of games so that he and others could make money from gambling. Stern called referee Tim Donaghy a “rogue, isolated criminal” and said his initial reaction was, “I can’t believe it’s happening to us.”

The FBI is investigating Donaghy, who is expected to turn himself in to authorities shortly. Reports paint a picture of Donaghy as someone who is universally unliked by not just players and peers, but even his neighbors.

Goodell is the commissioner of the National Football League, while Blank is owner of the league’s Atlanta Falcons. The pair of accomplished gentlemen are presently dealing with the indictment of Michael Vick, the Falcon’s star quarterback who is accused of being involved in dog fighting, an illegal and disgusting activity.

Thus far, Goodell has barred Vick from attending training camp (his arraignment is scheduled for the opening day of camp) and launched a probe of his own. Blank, meanwhile, has suggested that he’s letting the NFL take the lead here, though he also suggested that he wanted to suspend Vick indefinitely.

Last, there’s Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball. While some of the baseball world gathers this weekend to honor new Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn, others are keeping an eye on Barry Bonds, who is three home runs shy of breaking Henry Aaron’s all-time record. Selig will try to be present for both the Hall of Fame induction and Bonds’ big moment, which has been clouded by accusations that the slugger has used steroids.

Selig wavered on whether to chase Bonds around the country waiting for the big moment. If he did follow him, the commissioner would be legitimizing a record-setting performance that many baseball fans believe is tainted. If he did not follow Bonds, Selig would be accused of confirming many people’s worst suspicions.

Taking off my sports fan cap and putting on my PR cap, I’ve examined these three situations and concluded that all four men have acted appropriately. Let’s start with Stern.

At his press conference yesterday, Stern stood in front of a dark blue backdrop, devoid of any NBA or sponsor logos. The only logo was that of the league and it was on the microphone holder. This was a smart move as sponsors obviously don’t want their brands attached to such negative news.

Stern, who has always had a conversational element to his public speaking, was brutally frank, saying that he was devastated by the events and that it was the worst crisis the league has faced during his more than twenty-year tenure. Most important, he stayed on message, repeatedly making the point that this is an isolated issue involving one person who had broken the league’s and fans’ trust. His central theme was that he, like all NBA fans, was betrayed.

Goodell and Blank are in a tougher spot for two reasons: 1) Vick is one of the most visible faces in the league, not a no-name referee; and 2) The charges against him are heinous and unrelated to the game. The pair are getting pressured from many quarters simply to dump Vick, but I believe they’re taking the right tack in letting the justice system do its job.

Remember, Vick is only accused of a crime; he has not been convicted. To kick him out of the NFL or release him from the Falcons would be tantamount to saying he is guilty. Barring him from training camp is a way of saying, “We need to let the courts do their work, but obviously we need to do something.” By missing training camp, it’s highly doubtful Vick would be in the physical or mental shape it takes to play quarterback in the NFL, so he’s essentially about to begin serving an ad hoc suspension.

Selig is most familiar with controversy of the bunch, and thus the best prepared. By wavering on his decision to follow Bonds, Selig sent fans a message that he too is wary about conveying greatness on the San Francisco Giants outfielder. By ultimately deciding to be present when Bonds breaks the record, Selig is also saying, “There is no proof Bonds broke the rules.”

It’s certainly a mixed message, but it’s the right one. You simply can’t accuse someone of doing something illegal without proof, and MLB obviously has no proof that Bonds has either broken the law or its own rules. Selig’s posturing here conveys the message that he understands what most fans are feeling, but that he has a job to do, and that fairness is more important than opinion.

The one thing all of these cases have in common is that in each case one man has brought shame – real, accused or imagined – on huge organizations. While customers (fans) and the media heap abuse on those individual men, others have to deal with the wider consequences. How they deal with those consequences will be important for the future success of their organizations. Thus far, I believe they’re charting the right courses.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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