Wayne Rooney’s “alleged” use of Jenny Thompson’s unique escort services last year has generated a storm of media content since the News of the World and Sunday Mirror printed parallel ‘exclusives’ yesterday. Amid the paper talk, Rooney faces the real prospect of divorce and loss of millions in sponsorship income.
Much as salacious revelations of infidelity have affected Tiger Woods on both a personal and commercial level, the Rooney story could prove a disaster for the 24-year-old striker. How can he survive and come through the scandal with reputation intact? Rant sought expert help from the ‘dark side’ of the PR industry on how to survive a sex scandal…
The most obvious reputation protection strategy is to issue a denial, rejecting the allegation in its entirety and then offering no further comment on the charges. PR 101: never repeat the lie. This strategy is obviously predicated on either the rumour being entirely false or a guarantee that credible evidence is not available. Plausible deniability is the watchword.
Bill Clinton’s efforts in 1998 to enact a denial strategy foundered on Monica Lewinski’s semen-stained dress.
Conversely, David Beckham instigated a denial strategy when Dutch model Rebecca Loos claimed a four-month affair. Without further evidence, the case became Beckham’s word against Loos’ with a reasonable outcome for the former Manchester United star.
Apologise and face your demons
The overwhelming evidence presented against Tiger Woods ensured an inevitable admission of guilt. Essentially the golfer’s only strategic choice. The US’ more puritanical outlook on sex pushed Woods towards a containment strategy, involving greater media access, a very public apology and time in a high-profile sex clinic.
The strategy failed to save Woods’ marriage and cost the player millions in sponsorship revenue but has generated enough credibility to ensure that when the 34-year-old returns to form, the brands will come running back even if his wife has long disappeared over the hills.
It’s hard to envisage Rooney confessing his sins on the Jeremy Kyle show and then entering a clinic to cure himself of sex-addiction but should more girls come forward then it presents a potential strategy.
A campaign including at least partial admission, ‘treatment’, followed by a long-term series of profile pieces highlighting Rooney the re-born family man could begin to rebuild the player’s reputation.
Deposition your accuser
Credibility is key for both accuser and accused. Rooney’s containment strategy could include briefing against his accuser, Jenny Thompson, to ensure the prostitute is seen in the dimmest possible light. While an admitted call-girl, who has reportedly chased sexual encounters with dozens of footballers, lacks certain credibility, Rooney is not fighting from a position of strength. The player’s admission in an earlier biography that he used prostitutes as a teenager creates a perceived pattern of behaviour in the public’s mind.
However, a long-held public suspicion of WAGs that chase footballers could aid Rooney and his advisers if they choose a – surely misguided – strategy of fighting back.
Rooney could issue libel claims against both the News of the World, Sunday Mirror and every other media outlet that has published a written account of the accusation. UK libel law requires two conditions are met. Firstly, the allegation against Rooney must be false for the player to win a case. The burden is on the accuser, Thompson, to prove sexual encounters have taken place.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Rooney must also prove that his reputation is lessened by the defamation.
There are certainly enough inconsistencies in the accounts given to the two papers who secured a – presumably paid – interviews’ on Sunday for suspicions to be raised about the story’s veracity. However, even if Thompson could not prove her account, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Rooney’s reputation could be defended.
After all, has Rooney really been defamed if a previous admission of prostitute use is on the record?
Auld Slapper, the 48-year-old grandmother accused by the News of the World of sleeping with Rooney in 2002 lost a libel suit against the paper last year. While the Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper did not prove its accusation true, Auld Slapper lost the case when her previous employment as a prostitute came to light.
Finally, Rooney could do essentially nothing and let the story play out, while failing to enact any of the above strategies. To date Rooney has neither publicly admitted the accusation, nor denied it. The player has not filed a suit in the high court for defamation.
However, Rooney could retreat behind a ‘personal, private matter’ no comment strategy, allowing the newspapers and Thompson to repeat their accusations ad infinitum. While key sponsors Nike and Coca Cola have already said that this is Rooney’s private responsibility, failure to take control of the media agenda leaves Rooney open to months of negative press.