Oprah Winfrey has conducted a two-part television interview with Lance Armstrong, in which the world-famous athlete admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career including his historic seven victories in the Tour de France. Armstrong made a de facto confession when he failed to challenge the findings of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that he consistently doped and led a program of drug use and cover-up among his teammates and staff.
Armstrong joins a special tier of public figures whose transgressions are known well before they admit them, whose fruitless denials run up to the inevitable confession. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was commonly accepted despite his interpretation of the term “sexual relations.” John Edwards’ paternity of Frances Quinn Hunter was never in doubt to most of the public despite his elaborate campaign to conceal it.
Public relations is dedicated to mutual understanding and truthful communication between organizations and their publics. Individuals in sports, politics and entertainment are institutionalized and branded, hence their reliance on public relations the same as corporations. Public relations is dedicated to guiding actions that will maintain a connection of trust with publics. In short, it is bidirectional, a two-way street.
Lance Armstrong, like Clinton and Edwards, made his connection unidirectional, obscuring what was occurring at the source, controlling the message, blocking feedback. This behavior ignores the most basic communication models I teach in my courses. It violates the principles of public relations. It destroys reputation and brand equity, and it devalues any good works of the transgressor.
Did Armstrong finally show good PR sense with the confessional interview? Good public relations is not an academic exercise. It is not about a single interview. It is about long-term actions and planning for positive outcomes.
The most realistic outcome that Armstrong could anticipate is a reduction in his lifetime ban from sanctioned sporting events. He confirmed this desire by declaring his punishment too harsh and citing the leniency shown riders who testified against him. It is highly questionable how fans or the sports themselves would benefit from Armstrong’s future competition. As stated above, public relations must focus on the publics.
The second most realistic outcome is survival and stability for LIVESTRONG, the cancer foundation established by Armstrong. His interview with Winfrey served as a public apology to LIVESTRONG and its community, confirmation that he has stepped away from the foundation, and an appeal for its continued support. In this case, publics can foresee tangible good if LIVESTRONG stays viable.
Did Armstrong do a good job in the interview? Again, public relations is not about the immediate. With the damage done and bleak future ahead, there is no way this interview could be “good.” As did Clinton and Edwards, Armstrong fostered a certain fascination with a grossly belated “coming clean.” However, the confession was incomplete and laced with qualifiers.
Armstrong refused to admit the pivotal revelation by Betsy Andreu, wife of teammate Frankie Andreu, that she overhead Armstrong admit to doctors in 1996 that he used performance enhancing drugs. In turn, he tried to mitigate his years of attacks on the Andreus by acknowledging two derogatory terms he used to describe Mrs. Andreu but denying that he called her “fat.” Armstrong’s parsing was also seen in a truncated definition of “cheating,” recalling Bill Clinton’s tortured word play during his scandal. He further parsed by disputing USADA’s description of his illicit drug program as the most sophisticated ever, invoking East Germany’s sports doping as more vast.
While Armstrong took responsibility for his actions, he portrayed himself as simply another member of a warped culture, the entirety of professional cycling where doping was as common as filling tires with air and sport bottles with water. This conclusion sadly mimics the Catholic Church’s blame-evading report that attributes priest pedophilia to cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s. Blaming culture, even indirectly, creates a convenient villain–a superhuman, amorphous entity bending wills, all the time impossible to interview, subpoena or jail.
I teach about culture and its effects in my communication and marketing courses. Its presence and power are undeniable. But even when someone is born into an ethnic or religious culture, adherence to its values is voluntary. Lance Armstrong did not get caught up in cycling’s culture. He simply got caught.