Can Ari Fleischer protect Peyton Manning’s image?

If you know even the slightest bit about NFL football, then you know who Peyton Manning is. You also probably know he’s fairly good at football. And by fairly good, I mean exceptionally good.

Credit: By Ian Ransley (Flickr: Peyton Manning, Media Day) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: By Ian Ransley (Flickr: Peyton Manning, Media Day) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t mean you’re good at everything. It took Manning decades of running the same drills to be able to drop a 75-yard pass into the front shirt pocket of his wide receivers, and it takes PR pros the same amount of time to manage major press issues, such as steroid allegations launched in major media toward Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

To Manning’s credit, he realizes this is less in the realm of football than it is something else entirely. PR isn’t easy; a misstep or even rightful public outrage (which is pretty much the result of a misstep) can land you on the front pages with allegations written across your face in red.

To avoid that, Manning went out and got one of the best in the public communications business to handle his case: Ari Fleischer. For those who don’t follow politics or don’t remember the first decade of this century, Fleischer was the second Bush Whitehouse’s longest lasting press secretary. He has also handled some of the biggest moments in US political history… but with mixed results.

To be fair, it wasn’t always Fleischer’s fault. Whether you believe in the Iraq War or not, or who lied or didn’t, or what intelligence was legitimate, it’s clear that what actually takes place affects policy outcomes and political wins and losses just as much as messaging does, if not more. If the President has an affair on national TV, no press secretary will find the right words to spin their way out of it.

But Fleischer’s track record is still tied to outcome, and often that outcome has a lot to do with how the communication surrounding the story is handled particularly, the communication coming out of the camp of the person under fire.

Roger Sherman at SB Nation dissected Fleischer’s track record earlier this week:

“Sometimes, Fleischer actually helps his clients quite a bit. Fleischer was hired by the Packers in the summer Brett Favre unretired and the team decided to trade its longtime folk hero. He did a pretty good job, as Favre was portrayed as the bad guy in the split.

Sometimes, he doesn’t help that much. For example, Fleischer was hired to help spin the BCS, the much-reviled system of deciding the college football champion. Fleischer did not save the BCS, as it was continued to be hated and was eventually replaced by the College Football Playoff. Fleischer worked for Mark McGwire as he tried to re-enter baseball as a hitting coach a decade after his playing days. It kinda worked, as McGwire has been a hitting coach for five years now and we don’t talk about it all the time. But at the time, McGwire’s hour-long confession-slash-sit-down with Bob Costas was widely panned, with McGwire seeming ill-prepared and contradicting himself.

By USGov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By USGov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, he actively hurts. In 2010, Tiger Woods hired Fleischer to help rehabilitate his image after his personal life fell apart. This led to articles specifically about how the disgraced athlete shouldn’t have turned to the crisis management specialist. Fleischer and Woods parted ways within 10 days, reportedly because Fleischer’s presence raised too many eyebrows.

So that’s a mixed track record for Fleischer with a looming cloud of distrust from some sections of the population toward him for his role in a historically critiqued presidential administration. The unspoken meta-question here is “Will hiring Fleischer connect Manning unwittingly to someone who may hurt his reputation before a single effort has been made to address the steroid allegations?” When you hire someone with a spotty track record, some may believe your own track record is just as spotty.

That doesn’t mean Manning is guilty (or innocent) of the charge, of course. And, to use one old axiom “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” But to use another: “Perception is reality”. Manning must have run enough trick plays in his career to know that to be true.

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