When Michael Vick walked out of federal prison Wednesday after serving 19 months on a dogfighting conviction, he joined an ever-growing list of the famous — from Martha Stewart and Robert Downey Jr. to Paris Hilton and Mike Tyson — who found themselves in need of image rehab.
Consultants and public relations people agree that reassembling a tattered public image is basically a three-step process: Show genuine remorse, avoid becoming overexposed, and demonstrate that you've changed your ways.
For the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, the most important thing is to show "genuine remorse" for his crimes, says Marc Ippolito of Burns Entertainment, a company that brings together Fortune 500 companies and celebrities for endorsements. But the "genuine" part of the equation can be tricky.
"If it's not perceived as heartfelt, people are going to say, 'Michael Vick is just doing this to get back in the good graces of the NFL,' " he says. "For some people, it's going to take a year to believe (Vick is) sincere; for others, it could take 10 years."
Vick's pledge to help the Humane Society of the United States with a program aimed at eradicating dogfighting among urban teens is a good start, he says.
"He can't overdo it, and it can't seem rehearsed," says Glenn Selig, who specializes in crisis management public relations at The Publicity Agency. Selig, whose high-profile clients include the disgraced former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, warns that "people will be parsing his every word and wonder if he is just doing what he has to do to get back in the game."
Vick hopes to persuade the National Football League to let him back on the field. In March, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sounded a lot like an image consultant when he called for Vick to show "genuine remorse" and "a positive influence to correct the things that he did wrong publicly."
Easy Does It
Herbert J. Hoelter, a member of Vick's defense team, also advises clients on how to reintegrate into society after prison. Besides Vick, he counts Martha Stewart and disgraced junk-bond financier Michael Milken among those he has helped.
Hoelter's advice to Vick: "Take it slowly" and be "extremely careful about who you associate with."
"He got into difficulty in many respects because of the people around him," Hoelter says. "He needs to develop a new core of friends."
The next delicate balancing act is to keep a low profile — at least, to a degree.
It all feeds back into the remorse thing, says Hoelter. It is important that clients not be seen as desperate to get back in the public eye.
"There are dozens upon dozens of media requests for interviews," he says. "You've got to back away and pick the right spots."
Like A New Man
The third and final step in the process on the road to celebrity recovery is to "wrap yourself in a cause" says Selig. "Maybe his legacy is not about the game of football," he suggests. "Maybe his legacy is about ending the practice of dogfighting."
No one is putting odds on an endorsement contract for Purina Dog Chow anytime soon, but the consultants NPR spoke with agreed that Vick's public image is salvageable.
"I think we're a forgiving society," Ippolito says. "We've forgiven a lot of people for a lot of things. We can forgive Michael Vick, too."