Lance Armstrong’s ‘redemption’: Anatomy of a public relations strategy

Lance Armstrong’s 'redemption': Anatomy of a public relations strategy

Three months after the United States Anti-Doping Agency released its damning report into doping in cycling – which led to Lance Armstrong being stripped of all his post-1998 medals, including seven Tour de France titles – the disgraced cyclist is finally ready to confess.

On Monday he recorded a two-and-a-half hour interview with US talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey, an edited version of which will air on Thursday night in America (1pm Friday AEST).

It’s the most high-profile event in a classic rehabilitation strategy – the kind that many company leaders have faced since the GFC, although rarely with this kind of global profile.

Armstrong began his tilt with news that he was considering a confession to cycling authorities on January 4, and then his apology 10 days later to the cancer charity he founded, LiveStrong, delivered just before his interview with Winfrey.

“I think the PR strategy is a fairly stock-standard crisis management one,” says crisis communications consultant Andres Puig, from The Civic Group.

“It’s got three components: you admit the wrongdoing, you apologise, and then you make amends.

“The reports are that he’s going to admit to the doping, and apologise. He’s already apologised to his charity. And there are reports he’ll make amends – by giving some of his prizemoney back, for example.

“That’s the essence of his strategy. The test will be whether people buy it, which will depend on the interview and how he’s perceived through it.”

Does the fact that the strategy is so conventional limit its success? Puig doesn’t think so.

“Just because it’s a standard strategy won’t condemn it to failure. The execution will – what he says, how he says it.

“Admitting the wrongdoing is an important part of the strategy, but if he is seen to obfuscate or not to be frank and honest, then that part of the strategy will fail. People will feel they’re not being told the entire story. It has to come across as sincere.

“And when he makes amends, if people feel that he hasn’t given enough of the money back – which is American taxpayers’ money, by the way – then that part of the strategy will fail. It’s all about the execution.” Reports suggest Armstrong is considering returning a undisclosed portion of the millions in funds he and his former team received from the American government.

Part of what makes rehabilitating a figure like Armstrong difficult is the legal implications of any confession on his part, such as being sued. Along with Armstrong’s long-time agent, Bill Stapleton, his legal team attended the interview with Winfrey.

“Having the legal and public relations team working together is incredibly important in a case like Armstrong’s,” Puig says. “There are significant legal repercussions to what he’s doing.” Media sources report Armstrong is considering testifying against others involved in illegal doping.

RMIT public relations academic Noel Turnbull, who for many years ran Australia’s largest public relations consultancy, says rehabilitating a reputation like Armstrong’s is a long game.

“If you have been part of somebody’s dreams and aspirations like Lance Armstrong was – a fairytale, a winner, a miraculous recovery – people invest all sorts of things in your career and how they relate to you. What’s important is what people think of him in 20 or 30 years’ time,” Turnbull says.

“Journalists take the view that this is old news… but people talk about things like this for years.”

Puig says Armstrong’s timing is inspired.

“He’s allowed enough time to lapse for all the information of his wrongdoing to be fully in the public domain. The people who originally testified against him have all had their say. The bodies that govern his ability to race have all had their say. The public is now ready to hear from him,” he says.

“It’s important to note that what he’s done is so monumental – people feel so personally betrayed –that for him to have rushed to an apology would never have been sufficient. For a long time there were still questions – things not yet in the public domain. Now the dust has settled and the debate, which has been about cycling and broader issues, is all about him.”

To succeed, Armstrong ultimately has to redeem himself to his peers, opinion leaders in the press, and the American public, Turnbull says.

The public is the easiest group through which to gain acceptance, and if he succeeds on Oprah, he’ll have a platform to use when he goes to the other groups.

“With the cycling community – it’s pretty irrelevant what he does. Everybody with that group already knows what Armstrong’s position is, and they’ve got bigger problems to deal with, like the waves of inquiries that are now going on targeting the whole cycling industry.

“The mainstream media will still be concerned with the unanswered questions, like who was involved, why he lied for so long, all that stuff. They’ll keep asking those questions at least for a time, which could limit the effect of Armstrong’s efforts.

“For the American public, a confession is good. They’ll think better of him, though that depends on the apology itself.

“What he’s doing by going on Oprah is going around the media opinion, around the media elites, and around the sporting people to the American public. The strategy is obvious – if he gets support among the American public that provides a platform to go to the other groups.”

There’s something uniquely American about Armstrong’s quest for redemption, remarks Turnbull.

“In the United States, because of its evangelical Christian tradition, there’s a very strong tradition of confession and apology. It’s seen as very important.

“There’ve been dozens and dozens of people who’ve apologised and confessed, and gone on to redeem themselves: Bill Clinton, for example.”

Puig says using Winfrey’s program is ideal for reconnecting with the broader public. “You couldn’t hope for a better vehicle,” he says. “She’s the world’s confessioner-in-chief. Doing it with her will provide maximum interest and coverage. You’d have to live under a rock not to know about the interview.”

Will it work? Turnbull says he doesn’t know. “You can’t predict these things. The circumstances are different in each particular case.

“A lot of PR people give you the impression that there are simple, straight-forward things you do which fixes things like this. It’s not like that – it depends on the context, the circumstances… a whole series of things. Anybody who says appearing on Oprah will fix his image doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

“Ultimately, public relations practitioners follow rules of thumb that have tended to work and do their best to adapt to the circumstances. There are no guarantees – society is too complex for that.”

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