Marketers: For Phelps, after 2nd offense, saying ‘sorry’ isn’t good enough

Daily Record Business Writer
February 2, 2009 6:12 PM

With Olympian Michael Phelps’ image in question, some sports marketers are criticizing what they say is the tepid way his management team has handled the situation and are warning that his endorsement deals with family-oriented brands may be in danger.

“Just saying you’re sorry isn’t good enough now,” Baltimore-based marketer David Warschawski said of the statement Phelps issued Sunday after a British tabloid published a photo of Phelps inhaling marijuana from a bong.

Phelps’ apology, issued by his management firm Octagon and published on his Facebook Web page, acknowledged he had “engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment” and said it would not happen again.

But since Sunday afternoon, Phelps and his team have stayed silent. That’s not a good move, said Warschawski, because it allows public speculation to continue.

“Part of crisis communications is owning it and being out in front of it — all they did was issue off a paltry and small statement that wasn’t that different from the first time around,” he said, referring to a statement Phelps issued in 2004 after he was charged with driving under the influence.

Instead, Warschawski and others said, Phelps should be out in the public eye and announcing a plan of action.

“The one thing you can’t do is bury your head in the sand and think that’s going to make it better,” said Tim Richardson, vice president of Maroon PR in Marriottsville. “Make yourself visible — come out and admit to your mistake and talk about ... what happened and what you’re going to do about it.”

Appearing on a few nationally broadcast news interviews, as Phelps did with NBC’s “Today Show” after his DUI, could help quickly repair public image, as would appearing locally with his mother, a longtime educator, to talk with kids about drug education, they said.

Taking action could also go a long way toward easing potentially rocky relations with his sponsors, some of which may be second-guessing their decision to back the swimmer who won a historic eight gold medals last summer. Phelps’ endorsement portfolio includes Subway, Hilton Hotels, Kellogg’s cereal, AT&T and Mazda, and his earning potential is reportedly worth as much as $10 million a year.

While sponsors Speedo and Omega issued statements of support Sunday, others have stayed mum. Spokespeople for former sponsors PowerBar and McDonald’s said their company’s relationship with Phelps ended last year and declined to comment on future deals.

Warschawski suggested brands like Kellogg’s and Subway that strive for a family-oriented, wholesome image may be waiting to see how Phelps’ marketability weathers the storm.

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