Peyton Manning faced dozens of media members crushed up against his podium last night to see him at Super Bowl media day, the largest and most unpredictable press conference of the season. There, he was asked about the NFL's investigation into allegations he obtained human growth hormone.
"I know exactly what they're going to find: a big fat nothing," Manning said. "I respect the rules and regulations of the NFL. They're important to me. It's been completely fabricated what that story alleged that I did. Complete junk. That's what I have to say about it."
And that ended the line of inquiry. He had repeated the answer the night before in a CBS interview with Bill Cowher.
"I can tell you what they're going to find: a big fat nothing," Manning said. "It's been completely fabricated as far as the allegations of what they suggested that I did."
Then they talked about Cam Newton.
In late December, Manning was named in an Al Jazeera documentary alleging he used human growth hormone while recovering from neck surgery in 2011. If we knew then that he'd be in the Super Bowl we would have assumed it would have been the dominant story of the two-week lead-up.
The relative quiet around the HGH claims is part of a crisis press relations campaign that has gone exactly to plan.
Manning has hired Ari Fleischer's sports communications team to help him manage the story. Fleischer is best known as the former press secretary of the George W. Bush administration who helped trumpet the war against Iraq. He retired from politics to focus on sports, and his clients have included the Green Bay Packers, Mark McGwire, the BCS and, notoriously, Tiger Woods. How you feel about Fleischer may depend on how you feel about the clients he has had. There's no question he is still a trusted name in crisis management, however.
SB Nation spoke with Tim Tinker, an independent expert in crisis communications, before media day to learn how firms work with celebrities to navigate allegations that, true or not, can become synonymous with the person if not properly managed. Tinker looked at Manning's situation and explained how the story has been contained.
Strike an offensive posture if you feel you're in the right
Manning could have said "no comment" while citing his right to keep his medical records private when he first commented on the allegations. Instead, he shot down the report as "slapstick lies."
The idea to be bullish was likely a conscious decision after an initial assessment by his PR team.
The initial meeting between a PR team and a client is important, especially if it's a new relationship. The team does a triage of the situation, assessing what's happening across the media landscape and anticipating what's next.
It also gets the client's take.
"Rather than any type of determination of guilt or innocence, it's just, 'In your own words, described for me the situation as you see it,'" Tinker says. "'Share with me the best available facts that you have. Share with me where you see this possibly going based on what you know, based on what you don't know, based on what we could possibly know if we were to put a process in place.'"
The team explores the preexisting perception of the athlete, and from all of the information gathered begins formulating its approach. In Manning's case, Tinker felt that the quarterback had plausible deniability, allowing him to assume an offensive posture.
Fleischer's team was able to make Manning the face of his own damage control campaign, and Tinker says "he delivered some strong, clear, declarative messages about how he saw the situation, rather than explaining and being reactive in terms of just answering questions."
Soften the tone for the Super Bowl
When the NFL confirmed that it is conducting a full, independent investigation into whether Manning's wife obtained HGH, Tinker said that Manning should stay on the offense, but use a tone that fits the atmosphere of what is supposed to be a positive, lighthearted event. And that's what Manning did. He welcomed the NFL's investigation and harped on "staying in the moment."
"My sense is the 'tone' we are likely to hear will sound something like, 'The NFL has their job to do and I have my job to do, which right now is to focus on winning a Super Bowl for the Broncos and the city of Denver,' Tinker says. "When probed or asked for specifics, I'm sure his PR team will practice him on delivering that basic response or some form of that response."
Manning's retirement was the primary topic at media day, and it proved to be what Tinker called a "safe harbor" topic, eating away at the limited time he had with media. A stronger but riskier maneuver would be to make a preemptive statement, perhaps by opening the press conference with his thoughts on the situation. Doing so might have given the topic more weight than he wants to have, however.
Let the news do its job for you as long as it can
Al Jazeera's key source, a man named Charles Sly, quickly recanted his potentially damning story that Manning's wife, Ashley, had HGH shipped to her under her name. The shipments came from the Guyer Institute in Indianapolis, where Al Jazeera reported that Sly had interned beginning in Oct. 2011. Sly and Dale Guyer himself, however, claimed that Sly did not work at the institute until 2013. Al Jazeera released footage and a transcript of the conversation it had with an employee confirming the dates of Sly's internship. However, it didn't help perception of the story that it was coming from a foreign news organization, nor that Al Jazeera America shortly announced it would be folding its operations.
Manning's team seemingly seized on the Al Jazeera connection. More importantly, as questions were raised about the reporting itself, the team realized it could keep quiet as long as the media was doing damage control for it.
"They were really robust in their initial response and then they went quiet pretty quickly because they realized as things were developing behind the scenes -- with regards to the story, with regards to the Guyer Institute itself, with sources of the information, with Al Jazeera," Tinker said. "I think they very quickly kind of surmised ... in terms of managing their risk and mitigating their risk, it made more sense to kind of tone it down."
PR firms constantly assess their situations. Manning's team is likely ready in the case that another organization corroborates the Al Jazeera report, or an opportunity presents itself to further shape the narrative. There is risk involved in being proactive, however.
"When it comes to crisis, less is more, in terms of 'Let's not open any other doors here that we don't have to,'" Tinker said. "Or, 'Let's not introduce any new lines of inquiry.'"
In other words, the public is having the conversation that Manning would like it to have.
Have contingencies just in case
Though Manning can afford to be quiet, his team can't afford to keep still behind the scenes. It is doing "scenario development," in which it determines the worst case, best case and most probable case of the story and plans accordingly.
"There's an acronym that's pretty common, they use it, called A.P.P. -- anticipation, preparation and practice," Tinker said. "They're already anticipating all possible questions, concerns, scenarios, and then they are pre-messaging, or working on the messaging around those very scenarios if they were to come up."
Practice is key, especially with so many potential mouthpieces. The PR team needs to make sure that not only is Manning kept abreast, but all other vested parties like the Broncos, the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Anyone who could comment needs to be aware of what the message should be if anything changes.
The team is also making sure it has resources to deploy at the ready. Should the story escalate -- say, the NFL believes it has evidence that Manning used HGH -- a PR firm will have a protocol in place to mitigate the immediate damage of any new reports.
"Any organization worth its salt is going to have some type of core team, and that team is going to consist of a communications director, legal team," Tinker says. "And considering how sophisticated medicine is, and sports and football, I'm assuming that they would have access to a subject matter expert."
Again, the team must ask itself basic questions.
"'How is this report any different?' I guess that would be my first question. 'How is this report different than what's already been said?'" Tinker says. "If it's a rehash of bits and pieces of information here and there, that's when a person like Ari Fleischer's group would say, 'Listen, this report isn't really saying anything new or different, so let's maintain our current posture on this.'"
On the flip side, "there could be enough that someone says, 'Hey, we feel comfortable based on what we're hearing that we may want to escalate the request, or escalate the issue.'"
Hope nothing backfires
Sometimes, hiring a crisis firm can do more harm than good. Tiger Woods notably enlisted Fleischer's services when his image nosedived. The two reportedly parted after 10 days when media latched on to Fleischer's name and reputation and accused Woods of being over-managed. Fleischer also worked with Mark McGwire as the disgraced slugger was attempting to re-enter baseball as a hitting coach. McGwire granted an hour-long sitdown with Bob Costas in which he seemed ill-prepared.
Of course, Woods has never been known as a particularly warm personality, and McGwire has been back in baseball for five years as a coach with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres. It's also possible that those PR flubs occurred, in part, because of the clients' lack of polish.
Manning's reputation was stronger at the beginning of his crisis than it was for Woods and McGwire, and he has proven many times that he can be a personable, funny and humble. The fact that he hired Fleischer is notable, but it doesn't mean that Fleischer is speaking for him.
"If Ari Fleischer is up there standing right next to him during a press conference, that's clearly not what you're wanting," Tinker says. "Nine times out of 10 it's going to be more of the behind the scenes support or advice, expertise, all that."
Tinker admits that PR firms can make a situation worse, but "that statement is true for any industry."
"If you have the misfortune of hiring somebody who doesn't give you good advice, then you may have an unpleasant outcome," he says. "My philosophy in terms of PR and the role of PR is it's one tool in the toolkit, so you better have a broader toolkit. It would be the same with legal counsel. You're hoping you're getting the best possible legal counsel at the time."
For now, all is calm. Fleischer is doing a fine job for Manning, though he has probably had an easier time than he expected. The story almost certainly isn't over. Manning may still sue and, if DeflateGate taught us anything, an NFL investigation has the potential to elevate a story to mythic proportions.
But for now, the upcoming NFL offseason looks eerily quiet.
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