A Raleigh communications agency has landed a high-profile and controversial contract: working with star NFL quarterback Michael Vick to rehabilitate his tainted image.
French/West/Vaughan intends to announce shortly that Vick has retained the agency to handle non-football-related public relations and counsel the All-Pro quarterback on his personal brand. Financial terms aren't being disclosed.
"There is still no ending to the Michael Vick story," said Rick French, founder and CEO of the 85-person agency. "I think in the end it will be a very positive story."
The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback was vilified after reports surfaced of dogs being tortured at his Bad Newz Kennels. Vick was convicted of operating a dogfighting ring and spent 18 months behind bars.
But Vick has already taken huge strides in putting a positive spin on his saga this season with jaw-dropping football performances. They have made him the comeback story of the year and put him in contention for most valuable player honors.
America loves a winner. And Vick, who started the season as the Eagles' second-string quarterback, has the Eagles atop their division with an 8-4 record. That includes his leading the team to a come-from-behind victory over the Houston Texans on Thursday night with 302 yards passing. Still, the knotty question is whether the American public believes in second chances and in redemption, and whether Vick is a changed man.
French himself wrestled with those questions before agreeing to represent Vick. There also were business issues. How would employees feel about it? What would clients think?
Vick couldn't be reached for comment. His brother Marcus, a former NFL player, said in a phone interview that he referred Michael Vick to the agency on the recommendation of their cousin and after touring the agency's website.
Marcus Vick said he was especially impressed with the agency's roster of corporate clients, which include Wrangler and the Coca-Cola Co.
"Public relations is important to any mainstream athlete," he said, conceding that it is even more important for his brother. "People still have some doubts ... about Michael Vick."
Michael Vick was also familiar with Jack Glasure, who heads French/West's office in Tampa, Fla., French said. Glasure had done public relations work for an Atlanta rental car agency that Vick had invested in, before his conviction, when he played for the Atlanta Falcons.
Although he had his doubts about representing Vick, French agreed to join him for dinner last spring when he was in Philadelphia. French was there exploring college options with his daughter, Megan, who was then a high school senior. He deliberately took Megan to the meeting because she's a dog lover.
French came away convinced that Vick had been humbled by his experience and wanted to use his notoriety and celebrity to hold himself up as a cautionary tale "to keep other people from making the same mistakes."
That eliminated one of French's main concerns - that Vick was interested in hiring a PR firm simply to "window-dress what had transpired."
Meanwhile, his daughter told him afterward that Vick wasn't at all what she had expected. "Dad, he's a really nice guy," she said.
French followed up by polling some clients and employees and found they were OK with the idea.
The typical response from clients: "He has done his time. He has paid a heavy, heavy price. Whether anybody thinks the price was heavy enough is subjective, but he had everything and then he had nothing. The guy deserves a second chance."
Vick signed a contract with French/West in July. The agency has delayed announcing the relationship, French said, while Vick works out the responsibilities of the professionals who surround him - Team Vick, if you will. That includes his longtime sports agent, Joel Segal; and Brian Sher, a Hollywood producer and talent agent who conceived "The Michael Vick Project," a reality show that appeared on BET.
Agency sifts requests
A big piece of French/West's work is picking and choosing among media interview requests and requests for appearances from charit able organizations and school and community groups. That involves deciding which ones make sense and which are logistically possible.
"The media requests are just, on a daily basis, it's insane," French said. "He could spend 24 hours a day doing interviews."
As for Vick's community work, which includes making-amends speeches against dogfighting on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States, French said that the Eagles have expressed concern that he's doing too much.
"There are so many requests and he is trying to honor as many as he possibly can," French said. "A lot of this stuff he just does quietly because it is important to him."
Team Vick has detected signs that his stock is rising, at least in corporate boardrooms. Although Vick lost his lucrative product endorsements after he was convicted, his gridiron renaissance has spurred inquiries from potential sponsors who are apparently in a forgiving mood.
"There is absolutely no shortage of opportunities," French said.
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