2.5 years ago Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his part in a dogfighting operation. Like any celebrity or politician who has suffered from a damaged reputation, the post-act contrition interview is an important one. By the time the interviewed aired, Vick had already signed with an NFL team, the first step in regaining his career and image. However, that particular step does not make the necessary media interactions any easier.
Here, I break down the pros and cons** of the first 15 minutes Vick’s interview with 60 minutes and give my overall impression of Vick’s interview skills.
The interview begins with Vick describing how he realized the “magnitude” of what he’d done with the guard shut the door to his cell. He cites this as the reason that he “cried so many nights.” He went on to say that the tears were a result of being away from his family and knowing how many people he let down. He uses another 2 minutes to mention that he thought the dog fighting culture was cool, that it resulted in him lying in prison bunk with no on to talk to, and that prison life “wasn’t [his] life.”
When giving what I refer to as a “Contrition Interview,” it is important to think of which messages you know you want to make. As an outside assessing this interview, it looks as though Vick chose, among other possible things, to ensure he conveyed emotion and obligation.
Conveying emotion is important when the interviewee is a male. In particular, if the interviewee is large or intimidating in anyway. Many perceive African Americans as intimidating figures; Vick is a large African American male and needed to cultivate a soft image. The visual he provided to the audience of him crying was effective. It assists the audience in understanding that despite whatever acts were committed, Mr. Vick is a human being like any other.
Obligation, his other point of emphasis, is also important. Many fans and nonfans of football expressed disbelief that someone who had so much would risk losing it all. Vick did a great job of delivering the message that even he didn’t realize how much he had nor how much he had to lose until it was too late.
Vick frontloaded too many messages. Frontloading is a technique you use to ensure that the messages you need to deliver make it into the interview. Working too many messages in up front can result in an intentional contradiction or in you providing information that you would not have had to provide. Both scenarios happened during Vick’s interview.
By immediately going on a somewhat tangential monologue on how he thought the culture (of dogfighting) was cool and painting the picture of him in the prison cell with noone to talk to, he backed himself into a corner.
Brown did not follow up about why Vick participated or funded dogfighting until later. When he did, Vick declined to answer the question. Brown did not bring up the “cool” factor Vick mentioned—a lucky break. A different journalist would have asked him “What’s cool about dogfighting?” Try getting out of that question…YIKES! However, Brown did list a few reasons someone would participate in such activity to which Vick again declined to answer. Unfortunately, after declining to answer the question twice, Vick relents and subsequently answers the question using the same words Brown used.
Journalists often lead their interviewees much like attorneys during a trial or hearing. They use very common and sometimes inflammatory words that stick in the interviewee’s minds making it more likely that the interviewee will substitute the journalist’s words for his or her own.
When pressed, albeit lightly, about whether or not he is contrite, Vick stated “I don’t know how many times I gotta tell—say it. It was wrong.” When listening to and watching the interview, this line is not as harsh as it reads. However, Vick did express mild frustration which led to a breakdown in his ability to articulate his point successfully. Some interviewees never recover from such breakdowns and many time experience a loss of footing from that point on. Vick recovered from this breakdown within the interview’s first segment.
Though I only assessed the first 15 minutes of Vick’s interview here, I did watch the entirety of the interview and developed the analysis and tips below.
Overall, from a communications standpoint, Vick did a very solid and admirable job during this interview. There was a noticeable improvement in his speaking skills, including tone, projection, syntax, word use, and vocal projection when compared to interviews he provided to the press prior to his incarceration and prior to coming under legal scrutiny for the dogfighting issue.
Additionally, he conveyed a genuine sense of grief and weariness over his previous behavior, and regained his direction after becoming agitated. If this were a ‘normal’ interview, I would say that in future Vick should work on being more visually emotive (rather than verbally) and work on connecting with his words as well as connecting with the journalist interviewing him. At times, it looked like Brown and Vick were not in the same room much less the same interview with Brown being expressive and vocally exuberant while Vick was subdued and noticeably careful. Delivery disconnections often make interviewees sound less than sincere. But I’m hesitant to criticize Vick on those accounts. In light of the circumstances Vick’s stiffness and detachment can be forgiven.
3 Things You Can Learn from the Vick Interview
1. Don’t be led, no matter how many times the journalist plays leader.
When Brown asked Vick why he participated in dogfighting, he said, in effect, (politely and professionally) it doesn’t matter why I did it, it was wrong. He was right to approach the question in this manner. In a case such as his, the public has already formed an opinion, he is speaking out after the fact. His job is to show that 1. He is willing to talk about the situation and 2. He is apologetic. He shouldn’t allow himself to be raked over the coals. Unfortunately, once he was pressed, he relented instead of returning to his previous statement (repetition) or moving on to a new message.
2. Choose the right messages for you ahead of time.
It’s important to choose messages to deliver prior to the interview. Messages are not lies or made up statements. Messages are merely points of emphasis and are not an indication of insincerity or a desire to mislead. If you are planning on participating in an interview without preparing your messages (different from memorizing any statements or facts etc.) than you are leaving yourself open to a failed and potentially embarrassing result.
3. Choose the most credible outlet that will accept you for an interview.
In Michael Vick’s case, this was an easy one. This is a story wanted by almost every media outlet. However, some of you will be confronted with a need to use the media to convey a contrite message and 60 minutes will not be an option. When choosing a media outlet, do your research and assess how previous interviewees have been treated. Try to determine whether or not the outlet is generally responsible with its stories. For non-celebrities you will have to balance a need for a popular news outlet to accept your interview and the need for a credible one. Make the best choice, none of the outlets will be perfect.
This article was originally published in August 2009 and has since been updated. Please do not repost or publish without permission from MediaStrut.com.
**Note: MEDIASTRUT analyzes communications matters and challenges. As such a site, it is not our role to discuss whether or not justice was served in the Vick whether he should be allowed back into the NFL, or any other issues unrelated to the area of communications and related consultations. MEDIASTRUT is not associated with Michael Vick and cannot confirm whether Mr. Vick received assistance in preparing for his interview with CBS’ 60 minutes broadcast.