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


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