The BLACK paPR Report


PR from an African American Perspective

A Multi-Million Dollar PR Intervention: Saving the Black Pro Football Player

I received a distress call from people close to a member of the San Francisco 49ers franchise requesting my services as a PR consultant. The player was on the verge of hurting his public image and his career with his on and off-field antics. He was a hot-head, a loose cannon with no self-edit button. He’d say anything, do anything and played so aggressively it caused people to be concerned about the safety of other players. Yet, the caller assured me that he really was a great guy, a misunderstood person in need of my services.

So I did some research and learned that this player who had an excellent record as a player, had a horrible reputation as a human being and had been tossed from a series of teams throughout his short NFL career because of his inability to work and play well with others. I read his bio and a few articles that discussed his troubled childhood, and started to see the bigger picture that made all of his work in the community make sense. He didn’t just give away toys and turkeys, he gave himself as a mentor to young boys on the block in need of guidance and hope.

As a consultant, you want to feel your clients and empathize with them, and I liked this guy. In fact, it’s safe to say I felt his heart. However, there was one problem.

The player. He just wanted to play a nice guy on TV but didn’t want to give up the people and things that inspired him to be a bad guy on and off of the field. I explained that while there are magical qualities to public relations it wouldn’t be able to make his issues go away; he’d have to address them in an effort to make the public believe in him. He didn’t want to and hired someone else, his problems persisted and he was released from his contract. 

About a year later, Dallas Cowboy Terrell Owens found himself at the helm of a serious PR debacle following what has been described as an accidental overdose by some and a suicide attempt by others. Climbing out of that mess has been incredible for him. It still follows him though it is coupled with his infamous tirades on and off the field. The blessing in his case is that he still has a job and he’s still a hot property. 

One morning, I listened as comedian/radio talkshow host Steve Harvey spoke about the various trials of Terrell Owens. Harvey said he felt sorry for T.O. and other athletes and entertainers who have newly acquired wealth and notoriety. He said that he wished there was a place they could go to learn how to juggle the demands and troubles that come with the territory of being young, rich and famous, and black. And after hearing Harvey’s words, it all came together for me.

First of all, there is no one place for athletes and entertainers to go for sound advice on how to present themselves publicly in a way that makes them re-think how they live privately. Many years ago, I heard David Geffen say that whoever you are before the money is who you are after it. Truer words were never spoken. Still, I’d argue that David Geffen is not a commodity as these young men are, so to focus on internal struggles while trying to keep it together AND perform at an optimal level for the people who exploit you and count on you to entertain them is hard work.

Incredibly hard work.

This past week, Felicia Young, Vince Young’s mother told The Tennessean that her son was “hurting inside and out,” after the Titan quarterback alledgedly scared the willies out of coach Jeff Fisher enough for the coach to call 9-1-1. Young had a bad game on Sunday, throwing two interceptions, spraining his knee and being booed by the fans. Young disappeared for hours leaving a maelstom of media speculation concerning his whereabouts and mental state. News reports mentioned an unloaded pistol in his car’s glove compartment, and the fact that he’d left his cell phone at Fisher’s house. Of course, a hot mess ensued and now Young is being discussed in terms of his mental instability, his mediocre playing and his need to suck it up and get it together.

In an Associated Press editorial, columnist Tim Dahlberg states, “It’s true that all we usually see is the upside of being a famous professional athlete. We see the good times, the big money, the fancy Escalades, and the women who always seem to be hanging by the clubhouse gates.

“But when things go sour the stark reality of living up to everyone’s expectations can be hard to deal with. It’s not just the boos, but the feeling that they’ve failed in something they never once imagined they would ever fail in.”

Dahlberg gets it, or at least part of it. There’s more. 

We all usually see the ‘upside’ of being a famous professional athlete, but we never see the private side of most of these athletes who have to negotiate their worth and value in their sport while negotiating it with family, friends who want them to “keep it real and ‘hood,” and with the people who pay the bills. Internal struggles aren’t even a priority to these guys due to the pressures they face on a day to day basis. I challenge some of the naysayers to deal with a day of a thousand hands in your face wanting something for nothing, telephones that ring off of the hook with offers from people who want to exploit your brand, temptations from so-called friends and family to do things that could jeopardize your career (Mike Vick), while trying to keep your head on straight enough to keep on doing whatever it is you are expected to do on the field.

Face it, everybody ain’t Tiki Barber, a player I love and admire. If Tiki has or had one issue, we never knew it and that’s because he had a support system that enabled it to be that way. Vince Young, the player I mentioned first, Terrell Owens and countless others do not have that mechanism in place and it’s obvious.

As a PR consultant and publicist, I see the need for sports psychologists and experts on the politics of sports to start an education campaign that focuses on the issues many of these young athletes face. There are a number of black sports psychologists who can lend needed information on what goes on in the heads of these guys and who can help the public understand that there’s more to it than Vince and Terrell having ‘bad days.’ The need for information is not to justify but rather give insight. (I’m a proponent of psychological assessment of and therapies for black athletes at an early age, but that’s another blog.)

As a PR consultant and publicist, I am dumbfounded and almost speechless at the handling of these situations before they hit the press. The NFL and its teams have entirely too much power and juice to allow stories about their Vince Youngs to be blown out of proportion. In my humble opinion, Vince Young’s disappearance should have been handled more delicately and quietly. 

And as a PR consultant, I urge my fellow practitioners with sports clients to start becoming more transparent in their pitching of stories to the press. Fluff stories about community service are cool, but at the end of the day, we need to know about the person. We need to know and especially unforgiving fans and media need to know about the people who in spite of their pain and heartache go out on the field to help our pain go away. Honestly, it’s time to be more sophisticated in leveraging an athlete’s celebrity to gain public support in good times and bad.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching to see how Young rebounds from this mess, and praying that he is surrounded by at least one person with some sense to help him put this into its proper perspective. Someone needs to tell Young, “Yeah, millions  of dollars in a deal is great, but you’re worth so much more. For once, take care of you.”


Filed under: African Americans, Crisis Management, Mass-Mediated Images, Public Relations, Sports PR, The Black Pro Athlete, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Talk to Us, LeBron

There are people who know when they need a publicist or PR consultant and hunt us down. I love those people. Generally, they are savvy and understand that they are a brand or a brand in the making, and they understand the value of PR in getting them from point A to Z. These are the people we love and love to serve.

There is another group of people who kind of sort of think they need a PR consultant and/or publicist and they thoughtfully explore the option. We love them too, because they are people who want to make an informed decision before plunking down their hard-earned money. And they are generally great clients once they are convinced that we can serve them well.

There is yet a third group of people who truly believe they need a PR consultant and/or publicist and they really do not because they do not have any clearly defined goals or any knowledge of themselves as a brand. Some practitioners will take them on as a challenge while others will refer them to the practitioners who will take them on as a challenge. 

And then there are the people who really need a PR consultant and/or publicist but decide to wing it alone under the close watch of media critics and even fans. 

Just like my beloved LeBron James. 

LeBron, you really should hire me

On the Monday following the Cleveland Browns’ gift of a win to the Dallas Cowboys in Cleveland, no less, one of my favorite Plain Dealer columnists Phillip Morris wrote an editorial (Sick of LeBron James Not Cheering for Cleveland) about LeBron’s chronic and flagrant support of opposing teams. Phillip wrote:

“Sunday, I passed the point where I can ignore James’ trumpeting of his loyalties to other teams. When he hugged and chatted up Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones on the sidelines before Sunday’s Brown’s debacle, I could look at the greeting as two businessmen trading stock tips. But then James, wearing a Yankees cap, extended the same warm embrace to players Terrell Owens and Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones. While Browns receiver Donte’ Stallworth was busy pulling a groin muscle during warm-ups, James was on the Cowboys sideline encouraging Owens to get the ‘popcorn ready.'”

Geez, LeBron, if you’re ticking off Phillip, another person who could use a publicist, then how do you think the people who buy the tickets to watch you play feel? It’s really not a good look to tell people who love you — who buy the tickets, the gear and pay the taxes that support the Q where you work — that you don’t care for our city’s teams.  Am I oversimplifying matters? Please help.  

I guess it wouldn’t be so bad, but LeBron doesn’t talk to the fans vis-a-vis the press about his choice to wear a Yankees cap and root for the Cowboys. Just like he didn’t talk about that controversial Vogue cover. Though he did talk about being cited for driving 101 mph calling it “no big deal.”

Oh yeah, there was also the time LeBron refused to sign a letter condemning the Chinese government’s part in the genocide in Darfur. 

You said you didn’t have enough information to comment. I would have briefed you, LeBron, that is if I were your PR consultant. 

Recently, named Mr. James a Do Wrong Man for the above-mentioned infractions, a distinction that was borderline self-righteous on their part, but one that deserved a reasonable response other than the one stated in their profile. “Everything my name is on is going to be criticized … Who cares what anyone says?” Unfortunately, thought a whole bunch of black female consumers who have purchasing power and buy his sneakers and jerseys for their kids would care. 

As a PR consultant, I know how difficult it is to convince a client that they should care about what anyone says, still one word seems to work. MONEY. 

MONEY as in income source is a pretty good reason to care. Ultimately, people tire of being mocked and abused, and will place their dollar loyalties elsewhere. Fans don’t mind a sports star having their favorites, but in this case LeBron is from northeast Ohio and is employed by a northeast Ohio team. Perhaps, LeBron’s fans are owed some consideration for their loyalties to the city and especially to him. 

That was my first bit of free advice and here is my second: Talk. Talk to us, the fans and stakeholders in your career, and tell us the things we need to hear to remain (1) engaged with you in meaningful dialogue and (2) endeared to you.  We’re grateful you’re doing philanthropic work in the community, but that’s not the only time we need to hear from you. If you could just stop taunting us with the Yankee caps and public support of opposing teams, we’ll probably remain loyal to you should you decide to ever leave. 

So LeBron, how do we make this right? How can we make this better? Silence can be cruel, don’t be cruel. Hire a PR consultant. Talk. 

Best, Robin Caldwell

Filed under: African Americans, Crisis Management, Media Relations, Public Relations, Sports PR, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sold on Social Media: Lessons from Gustav

I followed reports on Hurricane Gustav and called my clients, Raney and Carla Antoine. Thankfully, they were preparing to evacuate and gave me a first-hand account of the chaos and madness in New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Carla shared as she picked her children up from school that she and Raney, a minister, took the time to visit members of their congregation who are elderly and sick and helped them prepare physically, emotionally and spiritually for the evacuation. On top of this, she told me that they had a host of relatives in the area to check on before leaving for her brother’s home in Atlanta.

During her drive back to her subdivision, Carla described the panic in the streets; gas stations running out of fuel and even noted when she saw a fuel truck unloading fuel at a gas station; she spoke to a neighbor about their evacuation plans and how they would pick up loose objects off of the ground before leaving so no one would be hurt by them in the storm. Carla told me that FEMA’s contraflow would begin on Sunday at noon, but that was when Gustav was at Category 2. I took note of everything she told me and then I …

Micro-blogged that information on so that people with New Orleans and Gustav-related concerns could receive it and know how to proceed. The responses I received were phenomenal and gratitude-filled.

Soon on Twitter folks stopped “tweeting” or micro-blogging about Sarah Palin and Barack Obama’s speech and began tweeting about Gustav. It was incredible.

Today, people like Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, asked “tweeters” or micro-bloggers what should craigslist do to aid in any evacuation effort. He gave out his personal email addie.

Another tweeter, @urbanreporter (urban reporter) posted live video footage he’d taken during his assignment as a reporter for HDTV and he used another social media site to run it. By the way, Ustream is the official video streaming site of the Barack Obama campaign.

One of my favorite uses of social media is this: and it was tweeted several times by me and other tweeters, including CSI actor and social activist Hill Harper as well as social media consultant, James Andrews. This ning site is astounding and was developed to keep people abreast of Gustav activity but also give families a central online location to post their concerns and check for their loved ones whereabouts. Freakin’ genius created by A. Carvin.

There are other social mediums working away to report on this effort and to even give place for activism. What I’ve witnessed so far has been short of astounding and proof that gurus, experts, fanatics and even novices like me can do great things with information technology to make a really bad situation bearable. I’m officially sold on social media as a grassroots communication movement, and sadly I have Gustav to thank for that.

 Best, Robin Caldwell

Filed under: Crisis Management, Media Relations, Public Relations, Social Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Celebrity Divorce

Reframe a crisis and in the process reframe a client’s image…

Recently there have been a number of celebrity marriage crises, including one that involves an actress primarily famous in the African American community. The actress married her prince in a fairytale wedding a couple of years ago, but the fairytale is now a nightmare, and the couple is separated with divorce looming in their future.

Most optimists in love, and I am one, truly hope that a marriage – any marriage – can survive a crisis. We wish the best for the people we love and simply want to see them happy. Unfortunately, the bond can be so irreparably broken and the vows breached to the point of divorce, which is hard on the average citizen but worse for the celebrity who is under a public microscope.

For private citizens such as me, we can heal quietly without fanfare, at least without the fanfare of media and other watchful eyes hoping for a story. For the celebrity, an ugly divorce can make or break a career, depending on how it is played out in the public and that largely depends on the celebrity’s gatekeepers – lawyers, managers and the publicist (s).

A publicist or PR consultant is not a magician and cannot happily make a crisis go away. However, she or he can use their skill set and brain to reframe a celebrity marriage crisis and ultimately reframe a celebrity’s image with the help of first, the celebrity, and then the gatekeeping team.

It begins with the celebrity.

The celebrity has to decide what is most important to him or her – an image that is worth its weight in gold or an image potentially tarnished by a need to vent publicly and carelessly. The celebrity has to stop thinking emotionally and think rationally about the long-term effect of his or her actions surrounding an impending divorce, especially if the terms are ugly. And, believe it or not, a celebrity has a choice to vent privately and present a stoic image to the public or vent publicly and risk looking absolutely crazy.

God bless the publicist who enables and promotes the latter. God bless the publicist with a client who against their better judgment does the latter – God bless you and run right out of that contract, because no matter how loyal you are, you will look incompetent and crazy too.

PR consultants and publicists with integrity and intelligence value their own reputations as they do their clients’ reputations. Yet, when a client is intent on ruining their own reputation then they will surely throw a practitioner’s reputation under a bus too. It’s not a good look for either party, which leads to the second step…

It is imperative that all gatekeepers and stakeholders in the celebrity’s career hold an intervention to strategize on the direction of publicity and the public decorum of the client. Everyone has to decide with or without the client’s help the direction in which to follow to insure (1) an untarnished image, (2) no loss of revenue and (3) no loss of reputation. Gatekeepers have every bit as much to lose as the client. If the client loses income based on his or her public behavior during a crisis, then the gatekeepers lose income and potentially their reputations as well.

A well-crafted strategy includes accountability elements for the gatekeepers and the client. While the strategy is a preventative measure, it is also a tool to keep every party mindful of the ramifications should there be a misstep or deviation from the plan. For example, if the client decides to step outside of the plan and do something in total violation of it, thereby risking their reputation; the gatekeepers have every right to bail in an effort to keep their vested interests, including relationships with other clients, in tact.

In the not-so distant past, I was in a situation involving someone of celebrity status who refused to obey the law. Two other gatekeepers were complicit, and put the pressure on me to go along with the program. However, a fourth gatekeeper, the lawyer bailed immediately, and when she left I followed soon behind.

Note: IF the lawyer leaves, then don’t hesitate to follow. A lawyer is a gatekeeper with not only a reputation to lose but a license. It is essential for the client to understand that their gatekeepers are people who have led them to a satisfying career and people who have the capabilities to forward that career. They are to be valued.

In short, a strategy has to be employed that insures client accountability to the gatekeepers and vice-versa or disaster will follow.

This is the first phase of the reframing process: Reframing the client’s thinking and reframing the crisis with a strategy.

The next phase involves reframing the media and their role in helping the client achieve the end goal of the strategy. Media cannot be used and abused or manipulated. That’s lame and unethical. Instead, they have to be viewed as partners who have a mission to report the news; and as influential partners who have a vested interest in presenting the client’s story with dignity and tact. It has to be understood, if the client makes a fool of him or herself in a crisis, then in effect, they make a fool of their media partners and give fodder to the type of journalism that can make or break a career.

Deviate from the strategy and make a mockery of media partners in the process and make unintentional enemies who will tell the story their way and without the client’s cooperation.

Lastly, it is up to the gatekeepers to keep a few things in perspective in enabling the client to see the bigger picture: (1) The costs of cleaning up a mess, (2) the costs involved in continuing a mess, (3) the loss of a career and carefully crafted image, and (4) the window of time in which a crisis can be reframed and a client continue in their celebrity relatively unscathed. The gatekeepers have to pose one simple question to the client: Is it worth it?

In terms of celebrity marriage crises, many celebrities rebound just fine even on the heels of serious problems played out in the public eye. Their careers continued and they rebounded just fine with the fans and in some cases, created new ones. (My favorite stories involve celebrities who have reinvented their careers and public personas after a divorce or crisis.) And the one thing they all had in common was that they got out of their own ways and allowed their gatekeepers to competently and quietly pool their resources to avert more trouble.

Note to clients: Fire the gatekeeper who plays crazy with you. In the end, you’re paying someone to mess up your career and perhaps your life.

Best, Robin

Filed under: African Americans, Client Relations, Crisis Management, Ethics, Help for the Practitioner, Media Relations, PR Standards & Practices, Public Relations, , , , , , , , , , ,