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.'"
Other image-changing moves
That's not all Mr. Vick will do to try to rehabilitate his image. People with knowledge of his comeback plan said it will also include mea culpa TV interviews, PSAs and charitable donations to other animal-rights organizations (or perhaps the formation of his own foundation), along with the possibility of working with PETA.
But this might be the mother of all PR jobs. Mr. Vick's obstacles are many: a hard-line NFL commissioner who wants to see "genuine remorse" before reinstating Mr. Vick to the league; individual franchises that might be wary of the backlash and potential damage to their brands from signing Mr. Vick; and an incredulous public that remains shocked by the story.
And what a grisly tale it is. Mr. Vick, who in 2004 signed a seven-year, $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, funded the Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia, which participated in the fighting of pit bulls and also admitted to participating in the sometimes torturous deaths of dogs that underperformed, including death by drowning, hanging and electrocution. Mr. Vick is due to be released from federal prison on May 20 and will serve the remaining two months of his 23-month sentence under home confinement near Hampton, Va., where he will be working a 40-hour-a-week construction job.
Mr. Vick's camp includes a multitude of PR and legal handlers. His Atlanta-based attorney, Daniel Meachum, did not return several requests for an interview. Mr. Vick's Washington-based lawyer, William "Billy" Martin, declined to comment. It is not known if Mr. Vick's team has hired a strategic-communications or crisis-management firm to handle the PR efforts. But PETA confirmed it has talked with his handlers.
Before doing a deal, however, PETA wants Mr. Vick to undergo a psychological evaluation for antisocial personality disorder. "We're suspicious this may come from a place of simply wanting to repair his public image, rather than genuine remorse," Mr. Shannon said. "He was dishonest all the way up the line until he finally had to admit to what he did, which is a hallmark of [antisocial personality disorder]. If he can't tell the difference between right and wrong, we can't get in bed with this guy. At this point, he hasn't chosen to submit to an evaluation. We hope the NFL will require that evaluation as a precondition of reinstatement. The bottom line is: Everybody knows he's going to apologize, go on Oprah and Larry King and say he did wrong, that he learned his lesson. But there's no reason for anybody to take his word for that based on the pattern of dishonesty and the severity of cruelty he took part in."
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.
Up to the commissioner
Whether Mr. Vick can convince NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is another story. The league has taken no position on Mr. Vick's status since he was suspended indefinitely in 2007. The Associated Press reported last month that at a panel discussion at Washington & Lee University, Mr. Goodell said he will meet with Mr. Vick after his legal issues have been addressed.
"At that point in time, I will want to meet with Michael, I will want to meet with his people, I will want to meet with other professionals to understand: Does he understand the mistakes he made and is he genuine and have remorse for those actions, and is he prepared to handle himself differently going forward? That will ultimately be my decision," Mr. Goodell told the AP. "Our issue is trying to do the right thing and represent the NFL in the best possible way. Michael did an egregious thing. He has paid a very significant price for that."
But he also indicated he would be open to the idea of letting Mr. Vick return. "If [Mr. Vick has] learned from that and is prepared to live a different life, I think the general public is forgiving on that when people are genuine and they show remorse and are prepared to live a different life. ... That's something he has to prove to myself and the general public."
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.
Mr. Levick agreed, saying, "The Falcons said they weren't taking him back, but he only has to change the perception of one of 29 other [franchise owners]. Sports are filled with people who have been given second and third chances."
Even PETA seems willing to give him another shot. "PETA does believe in second chances," Mr. Shannon said. "Just because somebody did something bad, it doesn't mean they're an unsalvageable person. We hope that's the case with Michael Vick."