Dear CMO:

Whether you choose to call this “crisis management” or “brand management” or “message management” or just plain good judgment is up to you. This isn’t a football post. It isn’t even about Michael Vick, the soon to be released inmate who may or may not return to a life of professional football. It’s about how messages get across with credibility.

As you may recall, I used the Texas Hold ‘Em poker analogy some posts ago to shed light on marketing. In Texas Hold ‘Em, you’ve got up cards – face up, public and obvious. Everybody can see them. And you’ve got down cards – your hole cards – that only you can see. While marketers often aim at the obvious surface issues, decisions are made based on hole card sensitivities. We may think it’s about “health,” but it’s really about “self-image.” We may think it’s about “cost,” when it’s really about “comfort.” We need to think hard about those levers that actually matter as opposed to stopping at the surface issues. With this in mind, let’s shoot Mr. Vick’s problem though the prizm of Texas Hold ‘Em and see what we get.

Background: He was convicted of organizing and funding a dog fighting ring and spent the better part of two years in prison for it. He was a Pro Bowl level football player before that. And now he’s bankrupt, disgraced, and about to be a free man again.

Up Card Thinking: the obvious thinking, as suggested or hinted at by many, is that he caps off his return with some sort of charity work related to animals to ostensibly assuage the offended animal lovers who will protest regardless of where he ends up.

Down Card Thinking: he screwed up in a fairly heinous way, so the gratuitous apologies are quickly given and ignored. No one will buy you as an animal activist. Forget PETA and the Humane Society. Your problem is one of smarts, of good decisions, of living an honorable life instead of treating spectacles of cruelty as entertainment. I could go on, but I think you get the basic idea. So let’s play to the remedies of a contrite man who has passed through these gates and seeks redemption.

The word dump: the ideas here include education, judgment, virtue, forgiveness and redemption.

Creative: we’ve gotten past the idea of PETA at this point, haven’t we? Good. We don’t casually forget what’s happened in the past and are under no delusions that our client will be on a Wheaties box any time soon. But we are a forgiving culture and we move on quickly. Vick should attach himself to a non-profit entity that combines education, athletics and spirituality. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America. After school programs. The YMCA/YWCA. Christian youth groups and ministries.

  • Education: teaching those who have yet to go astray the perils of doing so is an act we all fully support. Teaching them in a setting that stresses making good choices, having judgment, and living a virtuous life – given that the teacher has passed through the other side of these choices – is credible.
  • Athletics: he’s an athlete so it’s an expected and natural connection.
  • Spirituality: he’s seeking forgiveness for something hard to forget, let alone forgive. A non-profit with a spiritual mission touches upon the concept of forgiveness and blunts the public’s desire for more punishment.

Any opportunity he has to connect himself with redemption is a good position for him to take. It’s believable, credible and meaningful on a down card level.   If Michael Vick wants to rehabilitate his image, he could do worse than this. Put your brand, your CEO, your company, or yourself in this spot for a moment. The up card is never the plausible answer. Playing to the down card begins the process of rehabilitation and redemption.