Sterling’s reputation rehab attempt a PR ‘train wreck’

Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers, was interviewed by Anderson Cooper this week.

The TV talk show has become the modern confessional, where disgraced celebrities, coached by practiced PR professionals, make their mea culpas and try to restore their reputations.

But crisis management experts Tuesday called Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s performance on CNN a textbook case of how to turn a public relations crisis into a catastrophe.

“It was a total train wreck,” said Howard Bragman, vice chairman of and longtime Los Angeles-based crisis manager whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky and gay NFL draftee Michael Sam.

Sterling, 80, sat for an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Portions of the talk were aired Sunday, and more followed Monday. On the broadcast, Sterling told Cooper he was sorry for inflammatory remarks, made during a recorded conversation, in which he told his friend V. Stiviano that he didn’t want her being photographed with black men or bringing them to Clippers games.


But in trying to disown or distance himself from the comments, Sterling criticized former Lakers star Magic Johnson in ways that offended African Americans and the HIV/AIDS community, and probably ruined any chance of retaining the basketball team he has owned for 33 years.

The interview set the Internet and the talk show circuit aflame. CNN host Bill Weir, in the segment immediately following Cooper’s, said, “What this was to PR, the Hindenburg was to blimps.”

Experts wondered whether Sterling was being advised by a reputable public relations firm or was flying solo.

“It was obvious that he did not receive adequate communications counsel. If he did, he ignored it and wasted his money,” said Gene Grabowski, senior strategist at Levick, a Washington, D.C., firm that specializes in damage control.


“Any publicist who said to do this interview should go immediately to PR jail,” Bragman said. “But I don’t think he had anyone helping him.”

CNN confirmed that Sterling was unaccompanied by any professional handlers during the interview. His estranged wife, Shelly, who made her own talk show appearances on NBC’s “Today” show and did an ABC interview with Barbara Walters, is being advised by crisis PR firm G.F. Bunting.

Many celebrities whose loose lips, zippers or personal peccadilloes have landed them in public peril have tried to limit the damage by going on morning or late-night TV talk shows.

Athletes Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, actors Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, and celebrity chef Paula Deen all took to the public airwaves to explain or apologize for their misbehavior.

The confessions were often a ratings bonanza for the talk shows.

“This is great for Anderson Cooper and CNN,” Bragman said. “This is the biggest ‘get’ of the year.”

During Monday night’s Sterling broadcast, CNN had an average of 720,000 viewers — almost 300,000 of them in the 25-to-54 age demographic, which advertisers crave. That’s a 42% increase in total viewers and a 73% increase in the adult demographic compared with figures from the last four weeks, CNN said.

Los Angeles crisis management expert Michael Sitrick, who talked briefly with Sterling and his executives at the beginning of the imbroglio, said a public confession can be very effective for the disgraced client, but only if it is sincere or handled by a master thespian.


“If it works, the public gets a sense of who the person really is, and how they really feel,” Sitrick said. “But unless they are awfully good actors, what they say has to be how they really feel. Otherwise, it comes back to haunt them.”

Bragman, Grabowski and others said successful reputation rehab depends on three elements: a complete and sincere apology (undiluted by excuses); an attempt to redress wrongs (a large cash donation to a charity associated with the offended group or a promise to attend sensitivity training or enter rehab); and timing (you can’t commit a crime Friday, find religion Sunday and be forgiven Monday, one publicist said).

Sitrick said crisis management now routinely involves coaching a client for TV appearances, negotiating terms with news outlets, and then rehearsing tough questions and preparing credible client answers — much as trial attorneys rehearse witnesses or defendants before their court appearances.

The high-water mark may have been Hugh Grant’s 1995 conversation with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” after the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” actor was arrested for having sex with a Hollywood prostitute in a car. The British actor, in a relationship at the time with model Elizabeth Hurley, apologized for hurting the people close to him, without equivocating by offering an excuse or explanation.

The Sterling appearance, on the other hand, may be a new low.

During the CNN segment, Sterling called Johnson a poor role model, saying, “What kind of guy goes to every city, he has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV — is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?”

Sterling said: “He made love to every girl in every city in America, and he had AIDS. And when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and prayed for him.”

It wasn’t only Johnson, though, whom Sterling questioned, though he did ask at one point, “Big Magic Johnson, what has he done?”


“Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people,” Sterling said. “And some of the African Americans … they don’t want to help anybody.”

Both Sitrick and Bragman’s company were asked to take the Sterling account, estimated by PR experts to have a value of at least $100,000. Sitrick confirmed that he talked with Sterling and his executives on the morning after the recording surfaced, but said his firm did not take the assignment.

As for Bragman, he saw no way to help the basketball team’s owner and deemed Sterling’s situation “unsalvageable.”

“He’s going to lose the team, so the best thing he can do is shut up,” Bragman said. “In some cases, silence is golden, and duct tape is silver. This one called for an entire roll of duct tape.”

Twitter: @misterfleming, @byandreachang

Times staff writers Stuart Pfeifer and James Rainey contributed to this report.