Ari Fleischer said he couldn’t have saved disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and he wouldn’t have wanted to try. And this despite the fact that the onetime White House press secretary for President Bush has opened a new public-relations shop and is looking for clients.
“When you do something that’s so morally wrong, it’s not a PR issue, it’s a moral issue,” he said. “That’s a lot harder.”
So Fleischer will have to look elsewhere for new business following last week’s launch of his New York-based Ari Fleischer Sports Communications.
Unfortunately, business should be good. In an era where sports viewers have had to stomach one high-profile scandal after another, the timing is perfect for someone who can help athletes or companies to try to dig out of a big mess.
“Hopefully, people perceive what I used to do for a living as at a lofty level, working for the president -- politics aside,” he said. “My hope is that when I walk in a room to tell an athlete or an agent, ‘Here’s what you really need to do or say,’ they’ll listen.”
Fleischer, who still looks like he could pass for Jeff Zucker’s long-lost brother, wants to use his experience to coach athletes, teams and executives to not only handle the media, but leverage it. While he knows putting out fires is a big part of the business, he hopes clients will turn to him before the damage-control phase has already begun.
“My preference is damage avoidance,” he said. “To the degree that I can be a part of an organization that knows it’s got some issue brewing and they bring me in early enough, my goal is to stop the dam from ever bursting. Once the dam bursts, you really have 24 hours to fix things. Otherwise, it’s usually too late.”
In the sports world, one of the ugliest dam burstings in recent memory was Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s dog-fighting involvement. But as with Spitzer, Fleischer claimed that he probably wouldn’t have taken the business.
“I think I would have been happy to help [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank," he added. "I’m not sure I want to work for anybody like [Vick].”
Prior to the formal launch of the company last week, Fleischer had already been consulting for clients including Major League Baseball, which continues to take a pounding both in the press and in Washington over the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.
In an informal poll taken at the IMG World Congress of Sports conference last week, 75% of sports business executives in attendance said Congress cares about the steroid scandal much more than fans. With MLB still a client, that was music to Fleischer’s ears.
“I think Congress initially played a constructive role here and since then, they have probably run this issue’s course,” he said. “Sports fans are very sophisticated and quickly make the judgment that they love the game, but there are individuals who did some very foolish things, and [fans] make the separation. Congress doesn’t often make the separation. They try to lump everybody together and have an exciting hearing.”
But even as one of baseball’s PR guys, Fleischer won’t stick up for some of the steroid-era bad boys. After all, he’s a sports fan, too. “The bad apples deserve to get booed,” he said.
Sports could use a guy like that. There’ll always be something, from the National Basketball Association ref scandal to the rap sheets of too many National Football League players.
But as George W. Bush’s spokesman, Fleischer went through Sept. 11, two wars, anthrax attacks and a recount, not to mention working some damage control of his own thanks to the Scooter Libby-Valerie Plame affair.
That’ll give him some perspective. Sports is important but it’s not life-and-death stuff. Perhaps that’s why Fleischer was ready for the move.
“If I still wanted to be in the middle of the red-hot boiling water, I’d be [in Washington],” he says. “And I’d have even less hair.”