Oct 11, 2012

Bikes, Baseball & the Power of Goodwill in Preserving a Brand

The future of Lance Armstrong’s personal brand is blurry.

Yesterday was a sad one for me. A long-time cycling fan, and in particular, a fan of Lance Armstrong, the damning report issued yesterday by the USADA was a little heartbreaking.  Specifically, the testimony from eleven other cyclists has pretty much sealed it for me.  He doped, and worse, according to the report, he was the ringleader, pressuring other riders to get on board with the team doctor’s program of systematic blood doping.   The simple fact that he’s never tested positive doesn’t hold much water anymore.


Of course, as a fan of cycling, I knew doping was rampant.  Other favorites – Christian Vande Velde, Jan Ullrich, Alexei  Vinokourov, Tyler Hamilton to name just a few – have tested positive for a variety of sins against their bodies and the sport.  When the news of their positives broke, I was really angry.  No one likes a cheater.

But I’m not nearly as angry with Lance, a fact that has confounded (and disgusted) me.   Where is my outrage over this?

The answer is actually pretty simple.  Lance Armstrong’s story of beating cancer is one we all know, and it’s a heroic tale.  But what makes him such a sympathetic character – even in the face of the charges leveled against him by the USADA – is the fact that Lance is also a bona fide Good Guy.  He has effectively and relentlessly used the story of his survival to power the Livestrong movement.  Livestrong provides tens of millions of dollars annually to a variety of cancer-related advocacy and support programs.  The work this organization does, by all accounts, is impressive and immensely valuable.

From a PR standpoint, Lance Armstrong has provided us with a master class in the insulating power of goodwill and a good reputation.  Though his career as a professional cyclist has been permanently sullied, his work with Livestrong provides an important counterweight.  And the legions of people he’s helped are positive advocates for Lance and his brand.  Right now, they are buoying his brand in the rough surf of this current crisis.   They are buying him a little time in this current crisis.

Barry Bonds – a contrasting case

The polar opposite of Lance Armstrong is Barry Bonds, who was considered to be one of the best baseball players in the history of the game, until his use of steroids and implication in the Balco scandal.  A famously sullen player who  (unlike Armstrong) annoyed sports reporters by refusing to give interviews, Bonds curried no favor with fans, except through is play.  When the news of his steroid use broke, he was widely reviled by media and fans alike.  The teams he played for haven’t retired his number, and he’s fallen from grace, and into obscurity.    Bonds created no insulating layer of goodwill and as a result enjoyed little public support.

What’s next for Lance, and Livestrong?

From a PR standpoint, the question of what Lance should do next is interesting.  His former teammates, in their testimony to the USADA took responsibility for their actions, offered apologies and committed to riding clean (something many have been doing now for years.)  By and large, cycling has cleaned up its game significantly.

All this puts Lance in a tight spot.  He’s vociferously denied that he doped while racing.  An about-face now will be difficult.  But it’s probably the right thing for Lance to do, from the standpoint of his personal reputation, and the longevity of the Livestrong foundation.  The foundation brand is inextricably linked with Lance Armstrong.  One could argue that coming clean and doing all he can to repair his name is part of his fiduciary duty as Livestrong’s chairman of the board.

So, as both a fan of cycling and from the PR standpoint, my advice to Lance is simple.  Own up.  Be human.  Admit your failures, foibles and mistakes.   Transparency is strong medicine – it’s difficult to swallow, but it is a potent remedy.  hrow support behind the clean cycling and anti-bullying movements, and double down on your commitment to Livestrong.  Do these things quickly, and change the public narrative.  The opportunity to salvage reputation is fleeting, but it’s there.

That’s my advice to Lance.  If you were his PR counsel, what course would you chart?

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

Image courtesy of Flickr user AngusKingston.

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1 Comments on Blog Post Title

Bruce Mendelsohn 12:09 EDT on Oct 11, 2012

Lance would be wise to call off his rabid pack of attack dog attorneys, led by Tim Herman. The letter Herman sent in response to the USADA report was ill-timed and way too incendiary. To impugn the character of his former teammates, especially that of his loyal lieutenant George Hincapie, appears callous and arrogant.

Regardless of whether or not his former teammates are “serial perjurers”, the evidence against Lance is damning. Confronted by this overwhelming amount of evidence, Lance should refocus his PR on the work of his Livestrong Foundation.

He should put forth a slew of testimonials across all media (social and “traditional”) from survivors and families of survivors that attest to the important work of the Foundation. That might work to deflect some of the suspicion, disappointment, and rancor that this controversy has created and redirect Lance’s story in a more positive direction.

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