Off the Mark: What Mark McGwire Should Have Said During His Steroid Hearings
.By Sarah Fuhrmann
In the aftermath of the Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball last March, the testimony that caused the greatest uproar came from the player who said the least: Mark McGwire.
The now-retired slugger's unending intonations of "I'm not here to talk about the past" were likely interpreted by many as an admission of guilt and even as a potential block to his formerly certain early election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Time will tell, but it seems clear that McGwire's testimony - or lack of it - will forever leave a mark on his otherwise stellar career, which reached its pinnacle in 1998 when he hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals.
"From now on, McGwire will always have to live with the perception that everybody else on this day came off better than he did - certainly the grieving parents who lost sons to drug reactions, also the various medical experts, even union and management officials, who, after all, are paid to confuse," wrote New York Times columnist George Vecsey after the March 17 hearings. "On advice of counsel, McGwire said, he declined to comment on steroid use. Now, three years after his retirement and two years before his eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, a man once hailed as a hero and a role model has become a sodden hunk of aged and post-verbal sadness."
Corporate executives under fire and unwilling interview subjects the world over must feel McGwire's pain. What seems like the smart or prudent approach to a difficult interview can, particularly under aggressive questioning, become a disaster that damages the image and the public's confidence in a person, a product or a company.
How, then, to advise a client who has been subpoenaed to testify before Congress, who cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment nor speak freely without fear of prosecution or worse? And, more generally, how to advise any client facing a hostile interview? Agonizing as it may have been to watch, McGwire's experience before the House Committee on Government Reform provides a useful cautionary tale.
McGwire's situation was tailor-made for risk communications, a science-based approach to communicating to audiences particularly in situations of high concern or low trust. Initially developed by social scientists for professional hostage negotiators and physicians, risk communication offers a set of principles, tools and techniques for helping interested parties or stakeholders to:
Provide the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in high-concern situations
Build or rebuild trust among stakeholders
Engage stakeholders in dialogue aimed at resolving disputes and reaching consensus.
McGwire's testimony might have inspired quite a different reaction had he applied risk communications to his preparation. Some risk communications basics that McGwire should have included:
Establish empathy: As Will Rogers famously said, "People need to know you care before they care what you know." Risk communications research shows that for a message to be believed it is critical that the messenger be viewed as being both empathetic and competent. Women are automatically viewed as being empathetic and therefore must establish competence (noting, for example, their years of experience in the field) while men are automatically considered to be competent but generally lacking empathy. McGwire did a good job of this in his opening statement when he talked about being a father and how he felt personally about the steroid situation and about baseball. However, he failed to reinforce that through the long hours of testimony that followed and ensure that it was part of the resulting sound bites repeated on the evening news. This was particularly important as his was a broadcast event that not all viewers would have seen from the beginning.
Avoid negatives: Negative statements, even when they refute an allegation, merely reinforce it. So, McGwire's repeated intonations of "I'm not here to talk about the past" had the opposite of the desired effect, both on the members of Congress (who fairly begged him to give something - anything - more than his pat answers) and on baseball fans: "Anyone able to add two and two came away confident they were listening to a man who had used steroids to break baseball's most sacred record," wrote one poster to a baseball fan site. Keep the message positive.
Talk about what you can say: "I'm here to talk about positives, not negatives," McGwire told the panel more than once. That was the right idea; unfortunately he never followed through. Three or four positive points that spoke to his credibility and his demonstrated record of supporting baseball would have been a much more effective way to defend his career - and could have been done without straying into the risky territory of addressing steroids directly. For example, McGwire could have said: Throughout my career I consistently followed the rules of the game. I routinely spent three hours in the weight room every day and followed nutrition and weight regimens that were developed by top people in those fields. I have supported kids both by my performance on the field, and off through my charitable foundation.
Practice makes perfect: By all accounts McGwire is supremely uncomfortable in interview situations, a feeling that is undoubtedly shared by many in the business world, particularly people who don't give interviews for a living. While nothing can be done to dim the glare of the television lights, practice can make for a much more effective - and persuasive - presentation.
Although it's too late for McGwire, it's not for other sports celebrities who may yet come under scrutiny for the same issue, nor is it for corporate executives who often must face high-interest interviews of their own. As philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Mark McGwire, albeit unwillingly, has taught us a valuable lesson.
Copyright 2005 PR Tactics. Reprinted with permission by the Public Relations Society of America. (www.prsa.org)