Lance Armstrong: crisis communications master stroke or madness?

I’ve been asked whether I think Lance Armstrong’s latest move in his long drawn-out battle with those that accuse him of doping is genius or suicide so I thought I’d post about it.  It’s potentially both, but based on what I know of the case, having read Armstrong’s statement and knowing the rider’s history – I’ve ridden bicycles continuously since I was first given one – I’m leaning more towards genius!

Let’s assume for the purposes of this post that he is innocent. Given Armstrong has always maintained he has is clean and has never failed a test, despite having been tested hundreds of times and, to date, no evidence has been presented that disproves his position it seems only reasonable!  Armstrong’s withdrawal from the process puts the pressure back on the his accusers – in this case the USADA – to show the evidence they have against him. If they are unable to do so [and I mean evidence that would stand up to scrutiny in a court of law] then this quickly becomes a PR disaster for the US anti-doping body.

Armstrong’s withdrawal from the situation has already raised questions over the legitimacy of the USADA to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles despite its assertion that it is “confident” it does.  The event is sanctioned by the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] – cycling’s world governing body and, on its own website the USADA describes itself as “…the national anti-doping organization for the Olympic movement in the United States. The U.S. Congress recognized USADA as “the official anti-doping agency for Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic sport in the United States.” Olympics… not Tour De France.

On the other hand, if the USADA can provide credible evidence – as it claims it can [but has yet to provide] then Armstrong’s move initiates the death throes of his career, legacy, foundation…

While we’re on the topic of crisis communications here are a few tips on how to manage a crisis:

Know what you’re dealing with before you say anything. Make sure you have a full understanding of what did and didn’t happen so that you can develop a strategy that deals with the real crisis.  It’ll also ensure that you can’t be accused of misleading

Understand the relative jurisdictions involved.  Are there legal issues? Personal matters? It’s important to be clear what relates directly to your organization so that your communications strategy focuses on these issues and not on those that fall outside of your responsibility or sphere of expertise or legal jurisdiction.

Keep statements to the facts.  Don’t comment on things that aren’t directly related to you or your organization and don’t get drawn into commenting on rumour or speculation.  In some cases a holding statement is the best strategy: expressing shock, offering condolences or apologies, or giving assurances that a full investigation will be conducted and a more detailed statement given once this has been completed.

Control the timing. In today’s real-time internet world journalists [and their readers/viewers] want to know everything… NOW.  Don’t let your strategy be driven by either traditional or social media.  Using holding statements can provide a valuable tool here enabling you to provide updates on progress and setting timescales for a more detailed statement.  If you need to inform shareholders, investors or others before making a statement [either through courtesy or regulatory mandate] then it’s important to ensure that this is done prior to a statement being made.

Be transparent. Being open and honest is always the best strategy.  Honest mistakes [if that’s what they are] will likely be forgiven more quickly if they are taken responsibility for, than if your audience thinks you aren’t being upfront.

If you have any questions about how to manage a crisis we’ll be happy to help you build a crisis management plan that will serve you well in the event that it is needed.


Stories like this one in the Seattle Times are making Lance Armstrong’s strategy a very good one.

4 Replies to “Lance Armstrong: crisis communications master stroke or madness?”

  1. Agreed ! I listened to Travis Tygart, the CEO of the USADA on Friday on NPR and he grudglingly admited they have no proof. Even if he is guilty, Tygart demonstrated in that interview this is more about making an example of Lance Armstrong more than anything else.

  2. [This comment has been edited]

    His real PR masterstroke is to have reframed the facts.

    His decision to withdraw from the arbitration process is the “least worst option” – not genius, just pragmatic and cynical.

    1. Hi Phil, You raise an interesting point about reframing the facts, which I have written about as a communications technique in a previous post on RIM. I’ll write again about it in the coming days as it’s worth some specific focus.

      I had to edit your comment due to some of the points you made being actionable without evidence to support them. Your point about the USADA being ‘quasi-judicial’ is an interesting one… I’m not suggesting they have no jurisdiction to enforce sanctions, but their own mission statement sets out their remit – something that it appears they have forgotten in this case. Thanks and Best wishes, Lyndon

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