02.11.09

How A-Rod Can Save His Image

Now that he’s fessed up and apologized for using steroids, what does Alex Rodriguez have to do? Stay away from Madonna. Be a great teammate. And a World Series title wouldn’t hurt, either.

Since baseball megastar Alex Rodriguez admitted to using steroids, sports pundits have been speculating about what this means for his career. Loaded terms such as “image” and “reputation” are being been volleyed about.

In the damage-control business, fuzzy concepts like these have very little operational utility. To manage a crisis, seasoned handlers attempt to assess quantifiable marketplace damage, or precisely what must be preserved. “Image” won’t cut it because it’s way too abstract.

We have already factored asinine behavior into the megastar’s stock price—provided he doesn’t commit the one unpardonable American offense: failing to be entertaining.

Crisis management is an economic exercise, not unlike debt restructuring—a reckoning of the proverbial balance sheet in order to determine what kind of leverage the subject can—and cannot—bank on in order to survive. Put more crudely, it’s arithmetic, and the variables on A-Rod’s balance sheet are easy to identify:

A-Rod’s upside, which he’s trying to preserve, includes:

• his $275 million Yankees contract

• his commercial endorsements

• his prospects for getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame

• his family

On the downside, or things to avoid, include:

• losing his entire upside (see above)

• perjuring himself and going to the slammer

When he decided to quickly confirm reports of steroid use, I’m guessing that A-Rod saw the fast-moving alignment of two ominous variables: the impending criminal trial of Barry Bonds for perjury and the grand jury that is reportedly meeting in Washington to consider an indictment of Roger Clemens for lying to Congress.

While A-Rod surely lied to his fans via the news media about his steroid use, he has not yet lied under oath. Given the revolutionary climate on doping, A-Rod and his handlers may have wanted to decisively avoid sliding down that terrible slope. A megastar lying to one’s fans may be despicable, but a megastar landing in Sing Sing is a catastrophe.

If damage control is about pursuing the best of one’s bad options, Team A-Rod’s logic probably went likely this: By admitting prior steroid use now, I can retain my Yankees contract, minimize endorsement losses, stanch further embarrassment to my family, embark upon the likely decades-long campaign of repentance, and maybe, with the variable of time, still find my way into Cooperstown.

So what are the actual odds of success with this approach? For keeping his Yankees contract, they are excellent, assuming he’s not in an legal jeopardy. But they are more than even that he will lose some product endorsements, and better than even that he’ll lose the Hall of Fame, although, in the long slog of time, today’s debacle may be tomorrow’s asterisk.

So, what should A-Rod’s game plan be now? First: Win big, win clean. But do it for your team, not yourself. It’s time to be a great teammate. A World Series title would go a long way toward rehabilitation. But this part of the plan is about performance and character, not public relations.

Second: Be discreet. After a point, silence tends to be golden. Forget the tearful media road shows. For one thing, you’re not a loveable guy. And there’s no correlation between how often you apologize and public forgiveness. Spend time with your family, not because it looks good, but because it is rewarding and it is right. Enough with Madonna and the party scene. Nobody wants to see a sinner enjoying himself.

This will be fun to watch. Megastars tend to believe that the answer to all crises is more…me! Handlers, who are often more loyal to their standing with the client than they are to the client’s well-being, usually reinforce this. Yes, A-Rod, after evaluating the situation, we think the answer here is…MORE YOU.

In the end, A-Rod may be like America’s major banks—too big to fail. Even in his disgrace he will remain a draw because so many parties—including fans—are holding too great a position in him. Ironically, devious, uncuddly people like A-Rod don’t have as far to fall as those in whom we have invested our trust and affection. As our government bails out the banks, our entertainment culture will likely bail out A-Rod. We have already factored asinine behavior into the megastar’s stock price—provided he doesn’t commit the one unpardonable American offense: failing to be entertaining.

Besides, we secretly enjoy participating in these gravitational character arcs—the chugging upward of the rollercoaster, the stomach-in-your-throat freefall, and then the long-awaited climb of repentance.

An asterisk on your epitaph stinks, but prison and bankruptcy are even worse, which is why the game A-Rod is now playing is called damage control not damage disappears.

Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources Ltd. and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.