Although the Tour de France winner will come clean about doping in an upcoming Oprah interview, no amount of spin will save this cyclist. And brands have much to learn from his mistakes.
On Thursday, OWN will broadcast Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Armstrong is expected to finally acknowledge using performance-enhancing drugs after years of vehement denials.
Barring any interview gaffes, Armstrong’s decision to go directly to the Queen of Talk offers some PR advantages:
Involve the media. During a PR crisis, you are better off including the media. Ducking interviews usually means the coverage is more critical, as you don’t have a voice.
A controlled environment. Armstrong has utilized the smart strategy of picking one sole media confessor. Negotiating an exclusive usually allows you to dictate some terms of the interview. In contrast to giving a wider press conference, Armstrong can better manage a single interview’s flow.
It’s Oprah! Although Winfrey is no longer on network TV, she still commands a lot of clout. Winfrey’s mastery of candid but empathetic interviews bodes well for Armstrong.
Here are a few of Armstrong’s critical PR tumbles:
Lead, don’t follow. One of the first rules of crisis communications is to be in front of the news media, not behind it. The Oprah interview should have happened when the scandal broke, not this week. Lance was already at the back of the pack by the time one of his former teammates publicly accused him of using performance-enhancing drugs.
A desperate act. Armstrong spent a decade strongly denying doping. It became apparent last year that the allegations were facts, and that’s when he should have come clean. The general public has mixed feelings about the interview because of its timing. Armstrong has fessed up because he has no other option, but now his reputation is ruined.
Lack of sincere apology to colleagues. Of all the audiences that Armstrong needs to think about, Livestrong employees deserved the biggest apology — and they didn’t necessarily get it. As The Guardian noted, Armstrong’s half-baked apology to his Livestrong charity staff was more of an admission of regret than of genuine remorse.
Not the End of the Armstrong Saga
Armstrong’s pre-taped apology to the world is a necessary step in Armstrong’s rehabilitation, but it shouldn’t be his last. After all, these allegations go beyond Lance — it’s also about cycling’s reputation, a sport that possibly won’t be in the next Olympics because of this controversy.
The only way for Armstrong to rebuild his reputation (at least partially) is through genuine, redemptive acts that go far beyond the Oprah apology. He needs to commit to giving to the sport and to athletes overall, not gaining sports accolades.
For brands, Armstrong’s doping saga is a reminder that public relations and marketing are no substitute for honest and authentic business practices. PR today is about real actions and transparency, and the public expects nothing less. No amount of spin is going to save this cyclist.