Just like that, Lance Armstrong's house of cards has fallen.
On Tuesday, the seven-time winner of the Tour de France (1999-2005), who now faces overwhelmingly compelling doping allegations by the US Anti-Doping Agency, got dumped by Nike, Trek (which practically owes its popularity to Armstrong), Anheuser-Busch and many other sponsors (except Oakley). The International Cycling Union is now weighing whether to strip Armstrong, who the USADA calls a "serial cheat," of his seven Tour titles and other wins. If that's not bad enough, he also stepped down as chairman of the foundation he established to support cancer research. Livestrong's once powerful brand--we all recognize the yellow bracelets--has potentially taken a fatal hit, just as Joe Paterno went from a virtuous father figure to a callous coward. To use a famous saying (I coined), today's chocolate is tomorrow's s__t.
|It's time for Lance to bare his soul.|
I've been in PR for a few years, and one part of the business that's always interested me is crisis management--maybe because it's often done so poorly. In a crisis, one can face financial and legal threats, as well as serious threats to their reputation. In Lance Armstrong's situation, the situation is dire in all three areas.
Before we explore what Armstrong can do to help mitigate the damage, let's first assess the threats before him.
Legal: It is conceivable that he may face legal action from companies that paid him bonuses for his Tour de France wins and will now want that money back. It's even conceivable he could face prosecution for perjury as a result of previous sworn testimony, which could mean jail time.
Financial: Potential lawsuits could mean Armstrong is at huge financial risk. With all of his sponsors gone (except Oakley, which will surely pull out), is he in a position to pay potential settlements?
Reputation: This is where Armstrong, once a hero to millions for his cancer fundraising work and valiant cycling, is at greatest risk. Without his reputation, what does he have?
So, with his world in shambles, what can--and should--Lance Armstrong do next? I think he can't wait to act. He can't hide or refuse comment. His reputation is quickly eroding, meaning he must do something now. He must come forward and talk. He must tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
But only if his heart is in it. A disingenuous, cavalier "I'm sorry" will only worsen the damage. Armstrong must come to grips with what he's done, and then pour his heart out to his fans.
Marion Jones, the disgraced Olympic gold medalist, apologized--with tears streaming down her face--for cheating and lying and, granted, she's never recovered from the damage. But there's a huge difference between Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong. The difference? Marion Jones never had even a fraction of the public love that Armstrong had. People loved Armstrong, and now these same people want answers from him. I believe Armstrong is in a much better position to seek forgiveness than was Jones.
Does Armstrong even know the truth? Or has he lived so deeply in his own lies that he believes he never really even lied in the first place, especially since "everyone else was doping"?
Let's suppose that Armstrong does now recognize his own lies. One can only hope he'll also understand that the American people are a forgiving people. We tend to forgive people who do wrong and bare their souls as they ask for forgiveness.
Armstrong must sit down with a reputable news outlet, like "60 Minutes," and tell the truth. A press conference won't do; he needs to go deep into his story. He must show emotion and humility. He needs to explain why he cheated, how he cheated, why he apparently coerced others to cheat (appearing to be a bully), and why he's covered it up for all these years. He needs to show genuine remorse--and he must reach out to people in the cancer community who have looked to his once miraculous story for hope and now feel betrayed.
Of course, to do so would place Armstrong at risk of being sued by companies like SCA Promotions, and even facing perjury charges. If his reputation means anything to him, those are risks Armstrong has to take. Perjury cases are notoriously hard to prosecute, meaning the chances of him doing jail time for lying under oath are limited. As for lawsuits, Armstrong could avoid a public fight with SCA and others by quietly settling out of court, which he should do if pressed to pay up.
There are, in my eyes, no ways for Armstrong to totally escape all three threats--financial, legal and reputation. He will never fully recover from this situation. But he can help mitigate the damage by doing what he should have done years ago--tell the truth. This country is hard on liars, but we're even harder on liars who don't fess up when busted (we did, after all, forgive Bill Clinton, who lied point blank to the American people, only to fess up later). For the sake of his legacy and for the good of his family, Lance Armstrong has to come forward and tell the truth. He has to help us understand why he did what he did (if, of course, he himself understands). He has to acknowledge he was wrong. And he must ask for forgiveness.
He can never repair all of the damage to his reputation, but he can certainly stop the bleeding and begin the process of redemption and healing.
Click here for a disturbing look at Lance Armstrong's career and the doping allegations that have plagued him.