An excerpt from Manage Your Online Reputation by Tony Wilson.
How can anyone forget the performance of American swimmer Michael Phelps at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing? He won eight gold medals. In the 2004 Athens Olympics four years earlier, he won six gold and two bronze medals. Mark Spitz, the 1972 swimming sensation (who won 7 gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics), said about Phelps, “He’s maybe the greatest athlete … to walk the planet.”
Phelps’ star (and his value) rose dramatically after Beijing, with a name, a face, and a reputation known around the world. He received money from endorsements from Visa and other corporations after the Athens Olympics, but a nanosecond after the Beijing Olympics, the endorsement money flooded to Phelps like bees to honey. Phelps’ agent, Peter Carlisle, said, “What is the value of eight gold [medals] in Beijing before a prime-time audience in the US? I’d say $100 million over the course of his lifetime.”
Now recall Michael Phelps went to a party at the University of South Carolina in the fall of 2008. He did what lots of 23-year-olds do at parties — he smoked marijuana from a bong. However, someone with a camera (or a camera in a cell phone), took his picture with his face buried in the bong. Unlike Bill Clinton’s admission that he never inhaled marijuana while at university, a picture says a thousand words. The picture ended up on the cover of the London tabloid News of the World in January 2009 with the headline “PHELPS GOES BONG.”
USA Swimming, the governing body for amateur swimming in the United States, suspended him for three months over the incident. It said in a statement: “This is not a situation where any anti-doping rule was violated, but we decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero.”
The US Olympic Committee said it was “disappointed in the behavior recently exhibited by Michael Phelps. Michael is a role model, and he is well aware of the responsibilities and accountability that come with setting a positive example for others, particularly young people. In this instance, regrettably, he failed to fulfill those responsibilities.”
Phelps issued the following statement: “I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”
As for endorsements, they didn’t dry up. But if you’re a lawyer or a business agent for Nike, Speedo, Omega, or Visa in charge of negotiating Phelps’ endorsement contracts, you’re going to ask this question: Is the Olympian still worth all that money after the bong incident than before it?
Kellogg’s didn’t think so. It dropped him as a sponsor for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, stating: “We originally built the relationship with Michael, as well as the other Olympic athletes, to support our association with the US Olympic team. Michael’s most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg’s. His contract expires at the end of February and we have made a decision not to extend his contract.”
If you’re a celebrity and a role model like Phelps (or soon expect to be), everything you do will be seen by others and scrutinized. Everything. Expect both amateur and professional paparazzi to take your picture whenever and wherever they can. You’re in the public domain now. You may even be a role model for kids. Those pictures of you “letting loose” for a night can be sold to newspapers and magazines for tens of thousands of dollars, so you have to protect your digital image from those who would seek to embarrass you or otherwise profit from a compromising photograph.
In 1973, I was in Grade 11 at St. Michaels University School in Victoria, which was at that time an all-boys school. (Think of Hogwarts with lots of Rugby but no magic and you’ll get a sense of the place back then!) In June of that year, we were looking to do some harmless “end of school” pranks, rather like what some engineering students do to Volkswagens suspended from bridges when they graduate — except we didn’t have the engineering skills, the Volkswagen, or the bridge!
One of the boys brought to school a wireless microphone, the size of a pen. When activated, you could pick up conversations from the microphone on an FM radio nearby. No big technological breakthrough these days, but in those days, it was amazing.
One of the Grade 12 students saw the microphone and suggested we hide the “bug” in the room where the teachers were holding their end-of-year staff meeting to decide on all the school awards.
The bug was planted in an envelope, and addressed to a fictitious person, and put in the staff room. Word got around that the staff meeting was being broadcast on 88.3 FM. Every boarding student had their radios on and their antenna’s pointed skyward out the windows of the dorms. Every student of driving age had their cars parked near the staff room for the best reception. It was surreal, because we discovered who was, and who was not going to receive the school’s coveted cup.
Surprisingly, a few teachers who were on “hall patrol” that day instead of at the staff meeting had probably heard the broadcast. However, the microphone was never found and there was no recording of the meeting — no student was ever caught. The lesson here is to warn parents, teachers, and business persons this: if a 16- and 17-year-old can plant a bug in a staff meeting in 1973, imagine what can happen in the second decade of the twenty-first century. You never know when you’ll be “live.”
Public figures are often overheard saying something they shouldn’t say near a live microphone. US figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked in the knee by an assailant in 1994. The attack happened so Kerrigan couldn’t compete against Tonya Harding in the US Skating Championship that year. After the attack, and her return to skating, she had the sympathy of all America, including the Walt Disney Company, who featured her on a Disney float at a Disneyland parade. As she smiled at the crowd, she said, “This is dumb. I hate it. This is the most corniest thing I have ever done.”
Regrettably, she was within earshot of a live microphone, which picked up the offhand remark. Needless to say, Disney ended its relationship with Kerrigan.
You’d think actor and director Mel Gibson would have learned from a racist slur made to a police officer who was arresting him for drunk driving in 2006, but in 2010, he was recorded on voice mail saying awful and degrading things to Oksana Grigorieva, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of one of his children.
During the cold war, US President Ronald Reagan during a sound check before a radio broadcast, made these comments, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
In 2010, then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was caught on a live microphone describing a female voter as a “bigoted woman.”
In 2005, French President Jacques Chirac, also didn’t realize his microphone was live when he told someone in a private conversation during the bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, about rival bidder, London, “The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease. One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad. After Finland, it is the country with the worst food.”
The message is loud and clear. Whether you’re the leader of a great nation; the featured celebrity in a parade; a school principal at morning assembly; or a corporate lawyer at an annual general meeting of shareholders, assume there’s a microphone nearby and that it’s live.
Do you want to regain control over what is said about you online? Read Manage Your Online Reputation by Tony Wilson and don’t let angry clients, jealous lovers, or ruthless competitors ruin your image!