Lance Armstrong’s confession: The PR verdict

James WrightIn this guest post Red Agency MD James Wright assesses drugs cheat Lance Armstromg’s PR strategy in his Oprah confessional.

I was a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. Like many others I followed his career with awe, winning arguably the toughest event in the world, ‘The Tour’ seven times was incredible. I followed his interviews, read the books and supported his charity. Now, as we stand on the crest of what is probably the biggest sporting scandal of the modern era there is a feeling of betrayal.

Lance has taken a well trodden path in the crisis manual; confess to a huge TV audience, throw in a few tears, say you are sorry, talk about the pressure you were under, the cancer battle and seek forgiveness. Oprah is the biggest show in town for Americans wanting to get their confessional on and importantly, if Oprah shows understanding, even sympathy, then it gives the green light for others to do so.

lance armstrong oprah winfrey

So how did Lance do and can Brand Armstrong survive? In preparation he would have been put through his paces by management and image consultants, from how to phrase his responses, to body language and facial expressions. Every question and scenario interrogated and best course agreed. But the best laid plans, even in pre-records, are still difficult to execute well.

First, he needed to come completely clean.

Source: Facebook

The interview starts with yes or no questions, he admits to everything. Did you cheat? Yes. Did you dope? Yes. During every one of the seven wins? Yes. Did you to take EPO, steroids, blood transfusions? Yes, yes, yes. Then asked if he felt he could win without drugs? “No, not in my opinion”, and “ not to win seven in a row”, “not in that generation”. So, tick one.

Second, tackle the issue head-on so a line can be drawn and the media narrative has the best possible chance to change as quickly as possible – hopefully shift the emphasis to the future.

In this case he needed to answer the difficult questions and provide the facts. There could be no ambiguity otherwise he is open to feeding media calls for more interviews.

With issues regarding himself he was very straight-forward, he admitted all cheating from the mid-90s to 2005. The questions around him pressuring or forcing other athletes to take performance enhancing drugs, an allegation made time and time again, he said “absolutely not” but admitted that by being the leader of the team he was “setting the example”. We need to judge tomorrow’s second part to decide on this but he has gone a reasonable way.

Third, his tone and delivery needed to be honest, transparent and show genuine remorse.

For someone that a French writer dubbed “RoboCop on wheels” this was going to be challenging.

Considering the pressure he was under his performance was pretty good, he took his time in his responses and for the most part didn’t use closed or defensive body language.

Fourth, stick to what you did wrong.

Pointing fingers at others often doesn’t go down well. Yes there was a culture of cheating and yes many people in authority knew and condoned but at the end of the day Lance is a big boy and could have said no or acted as whistle-blower at the time. He fully admits this and goes as far to say that “no-one was forced or pressured to do it”, including himself.

Fifth, answer the why.

Why cheat in the first place? Why continue to lie years later? Why bully and belittle others? These are probably the hardest questions to answer. As to the overall ‘why’ he talks about his battle with cancer and how at the time he assumed a ‘win at all costs’ attitude and he carried that into his cycling. After his career ended it appears that he felt he was bulletproof, “the story was so good for so long”, he wanted to keep it going and it appears that he could live with the accusations.

Finally, you need to say you are sorry and seek forgiveness.

I hope we will hear more ‘I am sorry’s’ in tomorrow’s instalment as he doesn’t do this clearly enough for me.

Analysing how this confession came about and its timing is interesting. It is reported that Armstrong is worth around $125m and following the life ban last year that he faced in excess of $110m in potential liability from a host of law suits. The speculation is that this number could be significantly higher as further brands, media, sporting organisations and even governments assess their legal avenues.

It is argued this is why Armstrong has been forced to confess, that his legal team has on balance said it is likely that a great deal of these claims will be successful and therefore he faces financial ruin, not to mention years and years of negative press as each suit goes through media and public scrutiny. It would be sad if this were his only reason to come clean. Those seeking the best in Armstrong might think it is to save his legacy, Livestrong, a charity that has done an awful lot of good.

The next moves for Lance are going to be crucial from an image perspective and it will have a lot to do with what legal wrangling he gets involved in because years of suits following him will only serve to continually bring this story into the news cycle. Surely they will settle as much as they can behind closed doors, otherwise he will end up looking like he is the same arrogant Lance grudgingly fighting battles.

For a guy that has battled cancer and won, and spent so much of his career going up mountains his next challenge might be his biggest yet. Will this be the road to redemption for the sports former golden boy? This has the potential to become the greatest redemption story of all time or if handled badly could see him financially ruined and Brand Armstrong on the ‘do not touch list’.

Whilst we might not see him endorsing brands in the future, if it goes well we’ll probably see him organise his legal issues, then write a tell-all book and ultimately become a media personality. Time will tell. Sally Jenkins, co-author of Armstrong’s book ‘It’s Not About The Bike’ said that “champions are very, very different from you and me, their qualities are often dark”, how right she is, but not in the way I think any of us thought possible.

  • James Wright is managing director of Red Agency. He is a NSW committee member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia


  1. jaytee
    18 Jan 13
    6:05 pm

  2. wow I’ve got a bridge to sell you, would you like to buy it? I was suspicious when he won the second tour de france, 7 times yeah right! Awe? Not me, Suspicion is the word!

  3. Steve
    18 Jan 13
    6:50 pm

  4. Surely I am not the only person that saw the smirk across his face during the interview, almost like he was proud of his cheating. Of course some people will still idolise him, it would be naive to think otherwise – and I have no doubt some brands will seek to exploit this idolisation.

  5. justinmckeown
    18 Jan 13
    8:45 pm

  6. Interesting article, James. Armstrong’s brand is toxic.
    Will the public and the media go further and attempt what the Romans called “damnatio memoriae” – literally the damnation of the memory? Already medals have been returned and records expunged but will roads be renamed?
    In our celebrity-obsessed culture, I can imagine a role for him but his brand will now always stand for very different values.

  7. GeneralColin
    18 Jan 13
    10:51 pm

  8. I have an Opera House I’d like to sell you. Most of my friends thought the whole cancer schtick was an excuse for him to take extended time out of sport surrounded by doctors so he could work out precisely how to get maximum benefit from performance-enhancing drugs while learning how long each substance took to clear his system so he could avoid testing positive. Not sure you’re in the right business if you feel “betrayal” at Armstrong’s actions.

  9. Arnce Larmstrong
    18 Jan 13
    11:59 pm

  10. Interview? It was two friends on a couch ffs.

    Get Jeremy Paxman in from the UK next time. He would have conducted an interview.

    On another note: Is calves blood jabs considered drugs, or doping, or what? I need to build up my leg muscles!

  11. Bobby Dazzler
    19 Jan 13
    8:13 am

  12. Really wished Lance had Jackie Mooned Oprah…

    “Everyone can eat s#!t! A big bag of s#!t! I’m the greatest man in the world!”

  13. Tony Singleton
    21 Jan 13
    11:45 am

  14. Nice article.

    I think he put forward a very controlled performance – was anyone seriously expecting anything else?

    Clearly Oprah was a soft option, but to be fair she was probably less of an easy touch than many feared (although clearly wanting to get through all 112 questions meant she forgot to follow-up on areas). And you can’t blame the guy for not going on Paxman or facing Walsh or Kimmage – is anyone seriously suggesting they would choose that in his situation?

    As you identified, I think his big failing was not looking like he really was sorry for all this – the occasional smirk etc giving him away. And really surprised on a couple of counts that the PR advisors didn’t give him better answers to steer the narrative:
    – Why now? He let it be all about returning to competition and his ban being unfair in comparison to others. Surely there was a more sympathetic option.
    – Lowest point? The calls from Livestrong. Surely he would have been better to talk about the never ending pressure on his family – the mother and son stories that he then related later.

    To me this was not enough – okay in basic confession but poor in genuine contrition. He probably only has one more chance to set the story straight before we all right him off as the “arrogant prick” that he unfortunately appears to be.

  15. paul the freelance writer
    21 Jan 13
    12:13 pm

  16. ” … you need to say you are sorry and seek forgiveness.” ” … road to redemption … .”

    I’m finding the judgmental tone of a lot of the coverage of Armstrong a bit over the top. Almost fundamentalist.

    Just a bike race cheat. Meanwhile the weekend streets of Melbourne run with the blood of the alcohol-soaked and drug-addled. Makes Armstrong look like the biblical scapegoat.

  17. John Sharples
    21 Jan 13
    1:06 pm

  18. “Finally, you need to say you are sorry and seek forgiveness.”
    If he had just ONCE (and preferably more frequently) looked directly into the camera and said “I’m sorry. I stuffed up and I let you all down”, I _may_ have believed him.
    “But…….” and that was the most insidious word he used throughout both episodes. He continues to justify his actions with “But…..”. Never once did he truly accept his wrong doing – rather he looked like he was more upset he got caught.
    But I had cancer…..
    But everyone was doing it (bar the “heroes” as he called them)
    But, but, but……. but in truth I couldn’t watch it without thinking, “You’re still lying….. and you’ll continue to do so.”
    Interesting to see the SMH poll on should he be forgiven has gone from 80/20 against to 50/50 today…. obviously the PR’s working!

  19. Hmmmm!
    21 Jan 13
    2:33 pm

  20. Armstrong’s book should read: Armstrong, a Compulsive Liar

  21. Livestrong
    21 Jan 13
    4:46 pm

  22. I just searched in the Livestrong site for Lance Armstrong and got this…”We’re sorry, but no results matched your search. Please search again.” Not a wordc to the people he set this foundation up for. His Facebook page? last entry is Jan 9th and a link to him being interviewed by Oprah. Twitter? Nothing since Jan 7th.

    So for someone seeking forgiveness he’s done a pretty poor job reconnecting with his audience. In fact, he’s done nothing at all.

    Did he handle this well James? Deeds not words.

  23. Glen T
    21 Jan 13
    5:59 pm

  24. You don’t get it. Brand Armstrong is dead. Brand Armstrong is about winning by strength in adversity, Cyclist Armstrong has been shown to be about winning by cheating, bullying and corruption. That inevitably changes the meaning of Brand Armstrong to something which no product in its right mind will want to be associated with.

    The “stick to what you did wrong” advice might be good PR. But it’s poor advice in this circumstance. There have been so many lies said that the only way viewers can measure Lance’s contrition is by what he does, not by what he says. By not naming names he came across as not meaning what he said.

    You also ignore the subtext here. That Cyclist Armstrong isn’t just not a nice person, but there’s something almost pathological about him. The interview did nothing to dispel that subtext, rather the lack of emotion in the rehearsed responses were confirmation.

    Oprah didn’t help any here, her lack of knowledge didn’t meant she couldn’t ask cut-through follow-up questions based on Lance’s answers. I also thought that Oprah did a poor job explaining that Lance wasn’t merely cheating. Oprah also let Lance get away with some blatant PR moves (such as calling people to apologise just so he could say in the interview that he’d called people to apologise).

  25. Craig
    22 Jan 13
    7:15 am

  26. The problem with a formulaic PR response, like Armstrong’s, is that most people – particularly those who sponsored him, use the same playbook.

    If he had thrown out the book he might have been able to change some views, but by sticking so closely to the accepted script he just emphasized that he was a cheat & liar – even if he was honest about his confession.

    There is no simple way out for Armstrong – indeed there may be no way out. However why should there be?

  27. hORSEcAKES
    23 Jan 13
    4:39 pm

  28. Lance to write a new book: I didn’t have the balls to come clean

  29. Greg Smith
    25 Jan 13
    8:17 pm

  30. Armstrong is dead as a Dodo.

  31. Lyn
    29 Jan 13
    4:50 pm

  32. I’m sorry but any credibility this article could have had was lost at the first point, where you have him a tick for coming completely clean. Anyone who knows anything about cycle sport (or who has bothered to read the evidence in the Usada report or the listened to a cyclist other than Armstrong) will know the chances of him having come ‘completely clean’ are close to zero (ref his claim about riding his 2 comeback Tours clean).
    Secondly, the point about pointing the finger at others, the only way for him to redeem any credibility in cycling IS to point the finger and explain how he got away with it for so long – and who helped him. That’s the only way he will help cycling get past the cancer he nurtured in its highest profile peloton.
    Can we please have fewer ‘former fans’ and more people who actually know something about cycling write these articles?