Experts say Vick may not be able to recover from cruelty accusations
Sunday, Aug 12, 2007 - 12:08 AM Updated: 01:17 PM
By TOM CAMPBELL
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
NFL quarterback Michael Vick stands to lose more than a few years of freedom if he is convicted of the federal dogfighting charges against him.
He may also lose -- may already have lost, some say -- the public-relations battle of his life, along with his career as a professional athlete and his $130 million contract.
Vick's defense team of high-profile lawyers has signed two public-relations firms to help with the appearances aspect of Vick's defense.
Collins Spencer III of Spencer and Associates of Atlanta said his job will be dealing with the media and handling Vick's public appearances, if the lawyers allow any. Spencer was a reporter/anchor at WTVR-Channel 6 in Richmond in the late 1990s and also worked for CNN Headline News and Fox News. Another firm, Sitrick and Company of Los Angeles and New York, is also on the team, he said.
"We'll be working with Michael Vick as well, helping him in regard to his public appearances," Spencer said.
Rehabilitating Vick's public image from allegations he gambled on the outcome of bloody dogfights and tortured and killed dogs is going to be tough, observers say. But the ongoing criminal case makes it especially challenging for his public relations people, said Judy VanSlyke Turk, a professor of public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the School of Mass Communications.
"If it were just something embarrassing, probably the public-relations advice would be along the lines of just 'tell the truth and take your medicine,'" Turk said. "You're much better off being honest and transparent and upfront.
"But when you've got legal charges pending and so forth, that public-relations advice would be the exact opposite of what most lawyers would recommend," she said. "It's going to be hard for him to be completely silent and yet he can't be completely transparent and still make the kind of case in court he needs to make."
Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond defense lawyer, said it may be too late to rehabilitate Vick's public image, even if he is acquitted.
Benjamin and other lawyers said it's too early to speculate on the defense strategy because so far only the federal prosecutors know what the evidence in court will be. Prosecutors have told the court they expect a second indictment in the case this month.
Any defense lawyer with a celebrity client, even on the local level, should think about public relations, Benjamin said.
As soon as news about the dogfighting charges broke, Vick's lawyers should have thought about what public statement "a man accused of torturing animals" should make," he said.
"An absolute condemnation of dogfighting would have been a positive step towards dealing with public outrage," Benjamin said. "The public wants to know how Michael Vick feels about dogfighting and animal cruelty."
Michael Morchower said if he were representing Vick, "I'd have had him donate a year's salary to the ASPCA."
But Morchower, a Richmond defense lawyer with long experience in federal court, was not hopeful even that gesture -- Vick's Atlanta Falcons salary this season is estimated at $6 million -- would help much.
Allegations that Vick, a Newport News native and former Virginia Tech star, was involved with dogfighting at property he owns in Surry County had been percolating for months when he and three other men were indicted July 17 for allegedly operating a dogfighting venture called "Bad Newz Kennels" at the site. They allegedly acquired, trained and fought American pit bulls in illegal fights in Virginia and other states.
The federal indictment charged conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities -- dogfighting and gambling. The men are alleged to have killed some dogs that did not measure up as good fighters.
By the time Vick arrived at the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Richmond to plead not guilty a week later, it was a full-blown national media event, with hundreds of protesters and media held behind police barricades.
Benjamin said public perception often can affect the outcome of a criminal case that gets a lot of publicity.
"It can influence the prosecution's willingness to negotiate a guilty plea," he said. "It can affect a juror's willingness to believe a questionable witness."
And publicity that makes the defendant appear likeable or makes people aware of what is at issue can prompt people to come forward with information that might be useful to the defense -- people the defendant's investigators would not otherwise know about, he said.
"Even the best defense has limited access to the facts," Benjamin said.
Tobias said he doubts that a public-relations campaign can change the outcome of a trial from conviction to acquittal.
"But for Vick some of this really is about public opinion," Tobias said, "He's trying not only to win the case but save his sports career. In one sense, it's one and the same, isn't it?"
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