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From rags to riches to rehab: Is there a lesson in Ted Williams story?

As Ted Williams, the 'man with the golden voice,' heads off to celebrity rehab in Los Angeles, his whirlwind rise and fall is a cautionary tale for corporations and media who fell in love with his story.

By Staff writer / January 13, 2011

In this Jan. 5 photo, Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice, now sporting a new haircut and clean clothes, appears on the Morning Zoo program at WNCI (97.9 FM) in Columbus, Ohio.

Doral Chenoweth III/Columbus Dispatch/AP

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Los Angeles

Ted Williams was the feel good story for the New Year – a down-on-his-luck, homeless man whose elegant announcer’s voice, discovered in a viral video clip, gave him a second shot at midlife success.

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Not only did he have multiple job offers, but Kraft took him on as a macaroni and cheese spokesman and a mortgage company offered to pay for a house.

But now, with the announcement that despite his claims of being clean and sober for two years, he has not mastered the drug and alcohol problem that put him on the street, he becomes just the latest celebrity – if newly minted – to enter a private rehab facility in Los Angeles.

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The course of action was disclosed in an interview with Dr. Phil McGraw on his syndicated talk show that aired Thursday. Mr. Williams’ appearance on the show followed an altercation Monday with his daughter that involved the police.

The journey from panhandling on a Columbus, Ohio, street corner to media darling and now fellow resident-with-the stars in a private treatment center spanned less than two weeks.

The speed at which this rags-to-riches-to-rehab scenario played out leads to the question, what sort of fallout does the “man with the golden voice” leave in his wake?

Cautionary tale for companies, media

This is a cautionary tale for both the media and the companies that jumped on the Ted Williams bandwagon, says marketing and branding expert David Johnson.

“Corporations will probably be a little less likely to leap right into the next opportunity,” he says, but it’s more telling for what it says about today’s media environment. “We are in a 24-hour race for the big stories,” he says, “and the sort of journalistic due diligence that might have rounded this story out is fading as fast as yesterday’s snow story.”

There isn’t the culture or patience to dig into stories any more, says Scott Sobel, president of Media & Communications Strategies in Washington.

“This is just another example of the dumbing down of journalism,” says the former newsman who says he has no compunction about pointing a finger at the media for their role in this story. “We live in a competitive, 24/7 rush to get the story on the air, no matter what,” he says and today’s journalists, “don’t have the time or – unfortunately – increasingly, the inclination to do the simplest kind of due diligence.”

As for the companies that have hitched their wagon to the Willliams star, the best move is to resist the impulse to move as quickly as they did in the first place says Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.

“If Williams moves into the light and heads straight into a rehab program and does well,” he points out, “there could be a great well of support for any company that hangs in there with him.”

Challenge for corporations

Maintaining ties with troubled celebrities presents a challenge for many image-conscious corporations, says Michelle Randall, the principal of Enriching Leadership International, a global management consultancy.

A firm would be much better off working with Williams, she says, rather than bowing out when he is perceived to be less than the perfect Cinderella media story.

“It takes culturally agile leadership in order to meet people where they're at in all their humanity – whether squeaky clean hero or starry-eyed addict wanting to recover,” she adds.

For the moment, however, Kraft Foods seems content to have ended that relationship.

Lynne Galia, a spokeswoman from Kraft Foods, said in an email that “Ted Williams completed his work for us last week, and we think he did a great job. We hope the best for him.”

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