The Steroid Era Communications Strategy

Coming clean and being a part of the solution rather than the problem is the only way to have a chance at rebuilding your reputation.

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In this Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, photo, New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice before Game 4 of the American League championship series against the Detroit Tigers.
In this Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, photo, New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice before Game 4 of the American League championship series against the Detroit Tigers.

Paul Argenti is a professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. 

Today's news once again has an athlete (this time it's A-Rod) denying a newspaper report that he was ever treated by a supplier of performance enhancing drugs, despite credible evidence to the contrary. Worse than the less-than-credible denial is the fact that he had his PR firm, Sitrick and Company, release the statement rather than man-up and deny it himself, a la Lance Armstrong. At least have the guts to tell your own lies!

The steroidal approach to communications seems to be deny, deny, deny, then tell the truth when the evidence is so overwhelming that no one will believe your denials anymore. It strikes me that athletes, and many of the companies that seem to follow the same, legally-oriented approach, need to learn some basic crisis communications lessons from those who have gone through this before.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

First, realize that if you have no credibility to begin with (which fits A-Rod's situation), no one is going to believe you, especially when you deny it through your spokesman. As one Twitter post put it: "A-Rod is toast. No one will ever believe him, whether he's lying or not. #Lance too fresh in people's minds." The Commercial Bank Examination manual states that it doesn't matter whether the attack is true or not; your reputation is still at risk.

Second, if you are guilty of something, tell it all and tell it fast. Death by a thousand cuts is so much more painful than admitting to everything in one shot. A-Rod has denied that he used any performance enhancing drugs after 2003. If he did, what did he gain by admitting to use from 2001-2003, but not after that? Lance took years to admit what most people believed to be true years before. What is the point of denying something that is going to become public at a later date?

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Lance Armstrong Be Forgiven for Doping?]

Third, a crisis, whether personal or corporate, presents an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade. Coming clean and being a part of the solution rather than the problem is the only way to have a chance at rebuilding your reputation.  In baseball, Andy Pettitte will play for the Yankees and Team USA in the World Classic this March, despite admitting to using steroids several years ago. A Google search of Pettitte does not get into steroids until you read through several stories highlighting his stats and successes.

Is A-Rod toast? Is his PR firm telling the truth? Only time will tell. But if he had presented a credible answer and a more compelling version of reality the first time, we wouldn't be reading about the connection between A-Rod and Biogenesis. He would have told us about them and put the controversy to rest. Socrates said to gain a good reputation, "endeavor to be what you desire to appear." It's really that simple.

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