Lance Armstrong’s Top Secret Crisis PR Strategy Unmasked
Oprah Winfrey recently confirmed that during a taped interview with Lance Armstrong that will air tonight and Friday he did what the world has been expecting for a while now: he reportedly confessed that his remarkable achievement of winning the Tour de France seven times was fueled in part by performance enhancing drugs.
As the much-hyped interview on Winfrey’s OWN Network fast approaches, time is drawing very short for predictions so here goes: Lance Armstrong will deliver a masterful, but unconventional, performance in which he will draw heavily upon crisis PR techniques. That being said, I suspect that Armstrong will not follow the typical damage control formula by admitting his guilt, apologizing for over a decade of lying to the entire world, begging for forgiveness and asking Oprah to pass the tissues.
Instead, expect Armstrong to alternate wildly between defiance and introspection, acceptance of responsibility and vengeful blame of his critics for unfairly singling him out. There may be some tears, but there will be plenty of jabs as well and more than a healthy dose of righteous indignation and attempts to muddy the waters of truth.
Also, be on the lookout for Armstrong to downplay any pharmaceutical advantages he may have received by underscoring that he still deserves credit for the limitless grueling hours that he put into his training and the brutally tough races. Will he make the case that in a level field of competition where all, or most, of the elite riders were cheating to gain an advantage he was undeniably the strongest rider? Perhaps.
Armstrong climbed and descended undulating peaks and valley in the mountainous Alps during his heady Tour de France days, and viewers will likely end up bearing witness to an emotional roller coaster of well-crafted messaging and talking points combined with raw anger and frustration. Winfrey may have been hinting at this when she told CBS: “He did not come clean in the manner I expected; it was surprising to me.”
You can rest assured that Armstrong did not walk into this interview unprepared. After all, this is the guy who was nicknamed Mr. Millimeter by his teammates for his relentless commitment to proper preparation for his bike races. Armstrong reportedly adjusted every component of his featherweight racing cycles down to the millimeter and weighed his food on scales before each meal so that he could perfectly calibrate his caloric intake to deliver maximum energy at optimum weight. Immediately following her sit-down with Mr. Millimeter Oprah tweeted: “Just wrapped with @lancearmstrong More than 2 ½ hours. He came READY!” Of course he did.
Lance Armstrong approached his cycling career with a steely determination and focus that was unmatched, and it’s safe to assume that he did the same when confronted with the all-important questions of his long-term reputation and legacy.
On Thursday and Friday the world will be watching closely to see which sides of Lance Armstrong show up. One thing is certain: it should be a hell of a ride.
–Evan Nierman is a crisis PR expert and founder of the public relations firm Red Banyan Group.