People always ask me what sparked my interest in public relations. I didn’t go into college thinking I would choose public relations, and honestly I didn’t even know what it was. When I get these questions I’ve got a few defining moments that I use to explain my interest, and funnily enough they are centered around Michael Phelps.
For my first three semesters of college I was a Sport Management major at Western Kentucky University. I knew I wanted to work in sports but I didn’t know what capacity until taking Sport Communication with Dr. Tricia Jordan. We talked about crisis communication and public relations and it just clicked. I knew that was the road I would take. I researched Michael Phelps’ image reparation after his DUI and after a photo was circulated on social media of him smoking from a bong.
In November of 2008 Phelps was photographed smoking what he confirmed to be marijuana from a bong at a house party at the University of South Carolina. The image was heavily circulated on social media and all of the sudden Phelps had a crisis on his hands. At this point he did exactly what he should have done. He admitted to it. He didn’t try to cover it up or place blame on anyone else. He apologized to his fans and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.
Michael Phelps is a prime example of a successful image reparation campaign. At the time he was only 23 years old, he reminded the public and his fans of that saying that he “acted in a youthful and inappropriate way.” While his age was no excuse this wording was so appropriate. As an elite athlete he has to have a certain level of maturity that most 23 year olds do not. He didn’t downplay his actions and took his punishment respectfully, showing his maturity.
Phelps lost an endorsement with Kellogg’s and was suspended from competition by USA Swimming for three months. While social media can be a great thing for athletes it can be extremely damaging. Luckily Phelps’ PR team was able to deal with this crisis in an successful way. As the most decorated Olympian of all time this crisis has not hurt his reputation much. This was a bump in the road for him. One that could have been much worse without a good PR team by his side.
Now, eight years later Phelps is active in the fight against doping in sports. His actions eight years ago have not tarnished his reputation and he has some great sponsorships with companies like Under Armour.