Lessons from Lance Armstrong

The backlash has already begun against seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.

The interview, which aired over the weekend, included a confession by Armstrong about his drug use, something he had vehemently denied for years. Despite Armstrong’s tears the interview does not seem to have ameliorated the damage from what is one of the biggest ever sporting scandals.

There are important lessons for businesses in the fallout from Armstrong’s apology. Recently, Luke Baylis, the founder of Sumo Salad, had to apologise and quickly communicate a crisis management plan following a food safety scare; Tim Cook at Apple apologised following the Apple Maps debacle; and Ruslan Kogan, whose consumer electronics site Kogan suffered delivery issues over Christmas, wrote a blog post to customers apologising for the inconvenience.

So if you do find yourself in the position of needing to make an apology, there are a few key lessons from Armstrong on what not to do.

1. Don’t wait years to apologise

Armstrong has been denying he used drugs for years. He testified in an out of court hearing that he had never used drugs and made a defiant speech after one of his Tour de France victories denouncing “all the non-believers out there” who accused him of using drugs. Timing is key in an apology and the quicker you apologise the better.

2. Make a full and complete apology

Armstrong muddied his apology by emphasising being “caught out” rather than being genuinely contrite. He told Winfrey: “Everybody who gets caught is bummed out they got caught. Do I have remorse? Absolutely. Will it grow? Absolutely.” If you are going to apologise, apologise with no ifs and buts.

3. Don’t avoid the questions

Despite Winfrey’s attempt at the start of the interview to keep Armstrong on the straight and narrow by only allowing yes and no answers to questions, Armstrong still managed to weasel out of some of Winfrey’s later questions, demurring: “I’m not going to take that on, I’m laying down on that one”.

If you are going to make an apology it has to be a complete apology in order to be as transparent as possible. You shouldn’t refuse to answer questions.

4. Cooperate fully with authorities

Armstrong’s confession was limited to his drug use. He didn’t detail who else helped him use drugs or used drugs themselves. This is information that cycling and anti-drug agencies will be keen to find out. Armstrong would have looked a lot better if he had offered to provide full assistance to the cycling and anti-drug agencies in investigating drug use in the sport.

Similarly, if your business crisis involves authorities like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or the food safety bodies it’s best to cooperate fully with authorities and make that cooperation clear in your apology. Take a leaf out of Luke Baylis’ book; he worked closely with the NSW Ministry of Health to make sure the food safety scare at Sumo Salad was dealt with quickly.


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