Public Relations, perception.
Crisis Management, image repair.
Gatekeepers, buffer zone.
The role of a Public Relations team is incredibly important in a time of crisis, and boy, can the job be daunting. It truly does take a village.
Even the staunchest of Lance Armstrong supporters can no longer deny the the fact that the world’s famous cyclist cheated, as the man who was stripped of seven Tour de France titles finally admitted to doping throughout his professional career in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey.
After losing everything from medals, to sponsors to his position as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation, one might think the unsympathetic and abrasive Armstrong would have little to gain by speaking out.
"From a PR perspective, it was mission accomplished," according to Lila Brown, the founder of Ella Bee PR, a firm specializing in public relations and social media.
Seriously?? I didn’t exactly come away with that sense of optimism after watching Armstrong’s interview, but perhaps it’s time to frame things differently.
"Lance accomplished what he set out to do and was controlled throughout most of the interview," says Brown. "He told us what he wanted the public to know and didn’t go any deeper …He answered the questions that he knew were on everyone’s mind and he didn’t try to offer any excuses… He told us just enough to change the narrative on any further media investigation stemming from a large line of witnesses."
Brown, who represents several athletes, including Olympians Tyler Clary (swimming) and LaShawn Merritt (track & field), is one of many in the PR field tasked with helping shape the public image of their clients.
When someone like Armstrong has an “image crisis,” a team of creative thinkers has to consider all options, playing the role of lawyer to protect the client.
"I will say that I am more at ease when I know my client is telling the truth and we have fully prepared," Brown says of choosing how much one in her position needs to know.
A PR pro also must wear the hat of psychiatrist in an attempt to understand how the public will feel after digesting the client’s next move.
"That’s why it is important for a client to be honest from the start. It is my job to make sure the story is accurately communicated."
Just like in an athlete’s day job, practice makes perfect, as repeating situational role play helps ensure the story is communicated in a way deemed “successful” by PR standards.
"I would be concerned with my client speaking off topic and straying off message, but that is why we prepare for tough interviews by anticipating a variety of questions and how to respond," Brown says of the damage control process Armstrong and other celebrities in his situation are put through. "We tend to understand how the public will accept certain answers. We try everything in our power to be less surprised by anything and know what to expect."
Brown drew the same conclusion as many of us when Lance opted to speak out. After losing all of his sponsorships, the man needs to find a way to earn a living. But more importantly in Brown’s eyes, Armstrong wants a lesser punishment than a lifetime ban so he can resume competition, a sentiment Armstrong expressed to Winfrey in the two-part interview.
After all of the strategy meetings, focus groups, and carefully crafted blueprints aimed at precisely positioning a client, perhaps the most effective move is indeed the one that is least contrived.
Armstrong needs to, “get back to what made so many people fall in love with him in the first place which is raising awareness for cancer,” says Brown. Speaking about his personal battle with the disease may be the only credible, authentic chip Armstrong has left to play in the eyes of the public.
"His life’s story outside of cycling has touched so many people so he will need to find a new, sincere and unique way to connect with those affected by cancer."
(To learn more about Lila Brown, and Ella Bee PR, visit http://ellabeepr.com )
For the first time during his career a public figure, Lance Armstrong is set to let some amount of truth spill from his lips into the ears of a national television audience, thanks to an interview conducted by Oprah Winfrey.
Instead of focusing on the first public admission of doping from one of the supreme narcissists the sports world as ever seen, many have mysteriously unleashed their insults and skepticism on Oprah, in lieu of Armstrong.
Why are folks assuming this interview reeks of neglect and naivety - on Oprah’s part - without having seen it? Sure, the Marion Jones interview wasn’t as vicious as many had hoped, but Oprah is a smart woman. I would think she learned from that experience.
In fairness, did you watch the 30 for 30 about Marion Jones? In an entire documentary about her journey from rags to riches to federal prison, Jones, never explicitly explained how she cheated. She apologized for her mistakes and lies, but never said, “This is what I did. This is when I did it.”
Moving on to the next argument… “Oprah isn’t qualified.” Umm, are you KIDDING ME?
Oprah Winfrey began her career as a local news reporter. Do you know what a news reporter’s job is? It’s to become an expert on something new every single day. You learn, listen, read and gather enough information to convince the audience that you are a credible source on the topic and hopefully, you pull it off and actually enlighten a person or two along the way.
Of the +1000 people employed as on-air personalities and journalists by ESPN, what percentage do you think knows anything substantial about the sport of cycling? I’m guessing no more than two percent.
As a young reporter in Pocatello, Idaho, I covered auto racing, windmill manufacturing, the rodeo, nuclear engineering at the Idaho National Laboratory, a Monster Truck show for crying out loud… do you think I knew ANYTHING about any of those things? Nope! But I learned. That’s our job as reporters.
Oprah Winfrey has one of the brightest and most creative staffs television. If you think a person who has traveled the world, worked as a reporter and interviewer for more than three decades, and who -as an overweight, African-American woman in the South- managed to create a global brand all about HERSELF won’t have the tools and resources to successfully interview Lance Armstrong, well, clearly you haven’t given the situation much thought.
But then we come to this argument. “Armstrong is using Oprah. He’s not going to a more credible institution or to a journalist who covered him throughout because he knows she’ll be easier on him.”
If someone picked me apart and exposed my lies over the years, I wouldn’t exactly be inclined to sit down with that person either. The odds of Armstrong not holding a grudge are none to none.
Armstrong may be coming clean to a degree, but he’s surely doing it for self-serving reasons. Which outcome would you prefer… an in-depth interview that shows multiple sides of this man, with the possibility of light moments and a confession of some sort, even if it’s without all the intricate details of doping? OR would you rather have no on-camera interview at all, and instead, have a PR puppet write a short statement on Armstrong’s behalf admitting to doping?
I’ve read columns and tweets from journalists who appear to be personally offended by Oprah landing this sit-down, as though she “stole” the interview from them, or specific media colleagues. Newsflash: You were never in the running for this gig, and neither was the “more deserving” person you suggested was screwed out of the interview. It was either Oprah or Nobody as far as Armstrong’s team was concerned.
Most of what we’ve seen from Armstrong in his career has been lies, cheating, and truckload after truckload of BS. I would expect nothing less than manipulation and ingenuous, self-serving behavior from Armstrong, regardless of the person asking him questions. That said, I’ll give the guy a chance to prove me wrong.
And perhaps Oprah is actually the one person who gives Lance the best shot at letting what little speck of truth and humility still exist in that hollow soul to shine through to the public. That’s what Oprah is about. She has the ability to connect with people on a human level in such a way that they feel safe in answering even the most judgmental questions.
Speaking of judgment, let’s do the fair thing for Oprah by reserving it for after we’ve seen the interview. And better yet, let’s keep the heat on Lance Armstrong, the actual antagonist who seems to have lucked out into losing the spotlight to the one name bigger than his.