Putting any personal opinions and emotions aside, I find Armstrong's current PR dilemma absolutely fascinating. Crisis PR is always tricky, but as a marketing professional I have always been surprised at how a well-executed PR plan can quickly get the public beyond the problem and focused on the future. So...what should Lance say to Oprah to position himself best for redemption in the eyes of the public, the sport, and millions of cancer survivors? And how should he do it?
Crisis PR is both an art and a science. The art is in the "story", while the science is based in the tactics. If you get both right, the public appetite for this kind of story is mind-boggling HUGE. It is the gift and curse of mass media - like Icarus, you are granted wings only to fly into the sun. And it's not the burning of wax that the media wants, it is the confession and if possible, redemption. This is how heroes become human again.
The Tactics - How To Say It
Tactically speaking, Armstrong and his crew are right on target for a 10-point Crisis PR plan:
- Define your message strategy. Collect your advisors (and lawyers, in this case) and define the primary audiences you want to reach, your outcome goals (compassion, forgiveness, permission, etc.), and the actual words and phrases you expect to be published. This is "the story"...more on this later.
- Define an action path to redemption. A story or apology isn't enough - you need to declare actions you will take to correct your path. Michael Vick donates time and money to rescue dogs. Tiger Woods and Pete Rose get rehab. Chevron scrubs oily birds and donates money to wetlands. The more direct and measureable the actions are, the better. It will never be enough to overcome what you've done (and you will likely say this), but action implies sincerity. Years of action can even make people forgive.
- Establish a friendly media face to exclusively deliver your message. You want to control the message, so the best thing to do is find a media giant to help deliver it and give them an exclusive to draw as many eyes as possible. This should be a respected authoritarian figure, usually the one most apathetic to your story, and who is incented to spin it in your favor. Oprah is perfect - she's a media giant (bigger than Armstrong), has a history of taking confessions, and could use a ratings boost for OWN. How many houses have husbands that are setting their Tivo to record a show on OWN for the first time this week? Millions. All the other media voices (Bryant Gumbel, etc) will now be left to interpret the story, not ask questions directly.
- Spend some 1-on-1 time with those closest to you. You need to tell your closest partners what's about to happen face to face, show authentic emotion, and give them a chance to get some details ahead of the story. Friends, family, existing sponsors, employees...they all need to hear it directly and know you are sincere. Remember, they backed you, so they now get to ride the shitstorm right along with you. You better have their back now. Armstrong spent the morning with the staff at Livestrong yesterday, where tears were shed. Right on target.
- Distance yourself from those who could get dragged into this deeper. Resign from Livestrong - check, have Nike, Oakley and other brands cut ties - check, etc.
- Leak the expectation of a confession. Most of the "haters" are already using Armstrong's silence to judge and criticize, so it's best to leak the expectation of a confession with an "insiders who will not be named" kind of story about a week before your actual press date. This can help shift more of the hater dialogue in front of your message, rather than behind it. The hashtag "#liestrong" (note, no letter "v") is already trending big on Twitter...this is perfect. Let it get frothy.
- Be sincere in your message delivery, and show emotion. This may seem obvious, but let me tell you, it's hard for big egos to express things like regret and compassion to those they have wronged in the making of their image. It's the same big egos that fought incredible odds to get them to hero status in the first place, and it won't arrive at the conclusion of apologizing until every other avenue is explored. But it has to be done, tears and all, or you will get crucified.
- Remind people of the good you have done. Armstrong has helped millions deal with cancer and raised over $500 million. He should make sure to emphasize the importance of that, and actively distance it from the scandal in his dialogue.
- Follow up on your action path. Within the week, you need to start showing proof on your action plan, such as donations, Twitter apologies, and anything that can prove your trajectory has changed. Doing this in the face of people screaming "this doesn't redeem you" is actually best...drag that cross up the hill. Let everyone see the public had a voice for their lashings.
- Focus all future dialogue on the path forward. You've come out, you've taken your licks, and it's now off the table. The only press moving forward is what you're doing now.
The Story - What To Say
Now comes the "art" of Crisis PR. What exactly do you say, and who is that message intended to reach? This is where it gets fascinating for Armstrong because not all of his audiences are aligned, and he has to contemplate whether to sacrifice a few individuals to achieve his PR goals (coaches, doctors, etc.). Those of you unfamiliar with this dilemma can watch the movies Thank You for Smoking or Margin Call to get an idea of how this can aid in crisis messaging. Both are damn good movies, anyway.
First off, what is Armstrong's goal? Well, if I were to guess, I would say his goals are ranked as follows:
- Don't lose the cancer audience. This is his legacy, even more so than cycling. Under no circumstances can he lose this audience. Imagine if he cluster-fucked this by saying "I did dope, and in fact it was doping that caused the cancer, so once I got that under control the cancer went away". Holy macks that would be insane.
- Don't go to jail. Armstrong has never had to testify under oath about doping, but there are potential scenarios where he would have to do jail time should certain court cases unfold. Floyd Landis has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in alleging Armstrong and fraud associated with his $37 million sponsorship from the US Postal Service, and senior officials in the federal government are suggesting to jump on board. Plus the SCA case could potentially be re-opened/appealed given new facts, which may present a scenario where Lance would be subpoenaed to testify under oath...definitely not good.
- Compete again, and soon. Armstrong really, really, really wants to compete again. He rocked the triathlon world in his short debut, but now faces a lifetime ban in the sport, and according to USADA law, this lifetime ban can only be reduced to eight years. That's too long for Lance - he needs a 2-year ban max, so he's gotta get good with the USADA. Under the World Anti-Doping Code, athletes can get as much as a 75% reduction of a ban if they provide the kind of substantial help to antidoping authorities that enables them to build cases against others. That window might work for him professionally and be worth an aggressive 2-year effort.
- Retain some marketability. Armstrong is a giant of a brand, and if he does his confession correctly, his Q score will retain enough marketability to stay in the brand business. I can think of 30 brands off the top of my head that would still embrace him in a heartbeat post-confession, although likely not at the $30 million level he had with Nike, Oakley, and others. He does still have 4 million Twitter followers, for example - even a Tweet for a TV show he likes can move the needle more than a TV commercial.
Now, let's talk about his audiences, because this is where it really gets interesting. At a minimum, this message needs to address the cycling community, the cancer community, everyone he publicly skewered for calling him a cheat (some of which had their lives devastated), the teammates he may have asked to dope (with or without coercion), his sponsors, those he sued for liabel and took money from (the London-based Sunday Times, $12.5 million to SCA, etc.), insiders like his team manger Johan Bruyneel (who continues to claim his innocence and "will see the USADA in court") and doctors, the cycling pros that he knows were also doping, the perpetually weird UCI, the USADA and it's President, Travis Tygart (whom Armstrong has already allegedly told to go f*ck himself), his confidant and agent Bill Stapleton, his political connetions, rich folks like Thomas Weisel who convinced the world to back him and risk getting drawn into USPS whistle-blower cases, etc., etc. PHEW! Navigating these audiences and not unwillingly sacrificing the wrong one is VERY tricky. The story has to be just right.
If I was the PR guy in charge of the message, I would suggest the following:
- Admit to lying.
- Admit to doping at "certain points" in his career, no specifics. Be sure to cast this admission in the cloak of the known issues of doping in professional cycling.
- Define your "moment of clarity" as a time in the last 90 days.
- Define your losses (7 TdF wins) and focus on that as "what I've lost".
- Apologize to those you have hurt, and call some people out that are unexpected (Tyler Hamilton, etc.). Personally do it on Twitter, since honestly, it will only get you more Twitter followers.
- Extend an olive branch to help the USADA in their successful eradication of doping in the sport you love.
- Do something radical that addresses kids in sports - funds, free speaking tour, programs, you name it. Go for the heart strings.
- Pay back the US Gov't some portion of the salary received while under the US Postal Service team, just to get that perjury monkey off your back. That's jail time, yo. Big egos no likey small cages.
Oprah: Lance, there have been a lot of accusations and you promised to be candid. How are you doing? (Oprah is genius to always get the emotion first, and start on a first name basis)
Armstrong: I'll be honest, Oprah. Aside from the month that I was diagnosed with cancer twelve years ago, this has been the hardest month of my life. All of these things going on, being stripped of my seven Tour de France titles, has taken what was once a grey area and forced it to become very black and white. I've spent a lot of time asking myself questions I should have asked a long time ago. For the first time in my life, I'm ready to admit it to myself, and I owe it to the public to share the truth.
Oprah: Let's cut to the chase, Lance. Did you take performance enhancing drugs (PED), and did you require your teammates to do the same?
Lance: I will answer that question, Oprah. But it's important that you understand some context first. My introduction to PED came with my introduction to cycling, the sport I love the most and the one that pulled me from a Texas trailer park to compete with the superheroes of endurance racing around the world. I love this sport, and love its heroes. I did what the best of the sport did to succeed - use every possible legal technology to compete at the highest levels. Carbon fiber, wind tunnels, studying every tactic of every race, and yes, performance boosters when and where it made sense. Like many in the sport, we pushed everything we could right to the legal limit. My team felt the same - I've never asked a teammate to do something they weren't ready to do. But it wasn't a big deal at the time since it was so pervasive in the sport, as was claiming it wasn't happening.
Oprah: And you lied about it.
Lance: Yes, I did, Oprah. And I feel terrible about it and how it has affected so many people around me. At the time, nearly every athlete on the podium at a major cycling event was doing the same, so I didn't think much of it. But in retrospect, it began a process that resulted in a lot of people getting hurt. My family, my friends, my teammates, their families...I can see now how much I have let them all down. For that, I deeply apologize. I will have to live with this the rest of my life.
Oprah: So why come out now? Because of the USADA report and your titles being stripped?
Lance: Yes, but maybe not why you think. I had always seen the USADA as the enemy, the ones who invaded our lives with questionable tests and old methods, and rarely got it right. It took the stripping of my titles for me to understand what they were really trying to do - clean up the sport of cycling. Given the pervasiveness of PED in the sport, it never occurred to me that this could even be done. I had to lose everything I worked for my whole life to understand that their fight is still worth fighting for against all odds. I'm hoping that by being honest here today, and giving the USADA my help if they will take it, can help them clean this sport up for good. I don't want it drawing in others like it did to me. This is also why I'm going to be announcing some new initiatives I will be funding to help reach kids before they even get there. We need to start early. Now that I've lost everything, I want them to see how it ends so they don't follow that path. I will also be sending personal apologies to all of those I affected. There's no excuse for what I did.
Oprah: And what about Livestrong?
Lance: (tearing up) Their work is so important. SO important. And they work so hard. (rattle off stats) I will never give up the fight against cancer, but I don't want my personal situation to affect their mission, so I've stepped aside....(etc., etc.)
It will be a good show, no doubt. And we'll all curse and do the woulda/shoulda/coulda game, get it out of system, and then realize this is little compared to your average politician, Wall Streeter, or the Herculean devastation of Hank Greenburg and AIG suing the government for bailing them out after causing a near-fatal global collapse. Now THAT guy is an asshole. Let's keep it in perspective, people. ;-)
My thoughts to Armstrong's family and friends, the good folks at Livestrong, and all the others who will take on some friendly fire in this mayhem. It will pass soon enough if he sticks to the Crisis PR plan.