I'm interviewed by Advertising Age about Michael Vick's new PETA spokesperson gig

Michael Vick in Talks to Become PETA Spokesman

Jailed NFL Superstar Looks to Rehab Image After Dog-fighting Rap


NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Michael Vick is in talks to become the new spokesman for PETA.

Yes, you read that correctly. The disgraced one-time NFL superstar serving prison time for funding an illegal dog-fighting ring is primed to do public-service ads for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals upon his release later this month. According to three people with knowledge of the matter, the proposed endorsement is part of a comprehensive PR scheme aimed at rehabilitating the quarterback's image and gaining him readmission to the league that banned him from playing.

"I'm familiar with [the plan]," said Dan Shannon, director of youth outreach and campaigns for PETA. "We have been in discussions with Michael Vick, with his management team, about the possibility of him putting out a public-service announcement with PETA when he's out of jail. We want him to discourage people from taking part in dog-fighting. I can do it until I'm blue in the face and it might not convince anybody. Michael Vick sure can. He can say, 'Look, I did it, I was wrong, and it ruined my career.'"

PETA's PR issues

Though PETA certainly has its own PR issues because of its extremist positions -- the group is known for shocking advertising and stunts; it has been known to throw animal blood on people who wear fur and once sent a letter to the small town of Fishkill, N.Y., asking the community to change its name -- the organization nonetheless could give Mr. Vick's efforts a sense of legitimacy, experts said.

"It's a smart thing. He should be doing some work with PETA or other animal-rights organizations," said Richard Levick, president of the Washington public-relations consultancy Levick Strategic Communications. "What the American public looks for is recognition of error, contrition and fixing the problem. There was plenty of opportunity for Michael Vick early on to have admitted his errors without admitting his legal liability, to reach out to his sponsors, animal-rights communities, the football communities, but he didn't. So now he has to. Americans are willing to forgive egregious acts but not arrogance."

Despite the sometimes skeptical public reaction to such PR tours, those who shape public image said it has to be done. "Even if it is 'staged,' rehabilitation has to start somewhere, as long as it's sincere and consistent," said Drew Kerr, president and lead public-relations counsel for Four Corners Communications, a PR firm based in New York. "The public has a long history of forgiving people and creating comeback stories under the right circumstances."

Both Messrs. Levick and Kerr cited examples such as Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, who overcame a four-year drug addiction to finally reach the major leagues and make the All-Star team last year, and Michael Milken, the one-time "junk bond king" who was charged with 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud in 1989. He pleaded guilty to six securities charges and served less than two years in prison but today is a well-known and well-respected philanthropist whom Fortune magazine dubbed "The Man Who Changed Medicine" in 2004.

"There's a strange identification process that goes on, so if the sincerity is there, even if it's under the master hand of a PR pro, it can go a long way," Mr. Kerr said...

If Mr. Vick is suspended for the 2009 season, his options include the Canadian Football League and the upstart United Football League. But even if Mr. Goodell reinstates Mr. Vick for the 2009 NFL season -- and at age 29 he does have several productive years left if he stayed in shape while in prison -- it remains to be seen which team would take a chance on the quarterback. "There is a risk, yes, but professional sports has shown over and over that they are willing to take that chance even on the biggest risks, and they don't seem to wait long, either," Mr. Kerr said.