A Sorry State: Learning from Lance Armstrong

April 9, 2013

“I apologize.”

Just two little words. But, words that set the stage for a change in the course of events. That was exactly what cyclist Lance Armstrong was hoping for when he agreed to a two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey in January to “come clean” about his history of doping. 

Armstrong may have thought that he would find an understanding and forgiving public by admitting that he won his seven world championships with the help of banned drugs.

Or, perhaps he and his advisers knew better and made the move only as a step to get the U.S. Anti-doping Agency to remove a ban that prohibited his participation in any sport.

However, if he was seeking public forgiveness, then the effort was counterproductive. Seldom has an apology been less convincing or backfired so badly.

People tend to be forgiving when someone admits a sin or mistake and then makes proper efforts to move forward. Look at former baseball home-run king Mark McGwire, who lied and deceived for years about his use of steroids and then stonewalled the issue before a Congressional committee in 2005. He is now back in the game of baseball, serving as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and is rarely, if ever, booed in opposing ballparks.

The difference in the two scenarios is highly significant. When McGwire ended his path of deception nearly five years after his “I’m not here to talk about the past” testimony, he did everything right.

He first admitted in an ESPN television interview in January 2010 that he had used steroids for 10 years as a player. He personally called to apologize to three affected parties: his former manager, Tony LaRussa; Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball; and Pat Maris, the widow of Roger Maris, the player whose all-time home run record he broke in his 70-home-run season. 

McGwire also explained to everyone why he did it. He said that he had used both steroids and human growth hormone to reduce his injury rate, not to gain an advantage. 

Apologize with action

Armstrong, however, fell short of this standard. Most important, he didn’t display a sign of contrition or a commitment to mend his ways. Making his “confession” only on Oprah Winfrey’s television program virtually guaranteed that there would be a sympathetic ear without a tough line of questioning. The Washington Post called it “a cheap confession in a reality TV culture.”  

The way to have credibility for someone who wanted to make a public admission would be to appear on “60 Minutes” with its no-holds-barred questioning or to hold a news conference. That would take a level of courage and honesty that the disgraced cyclist seemed unable to muster.

His body language during the interview was bad and, in my view, telling. He was low on energy and emotion — resembling a school child who admitted to cheating on a test.  Armstrong didn’t say why he cheated, as McGwire did, or why he lied about it.

The Oprah interview alone would hardly be enough to clear the slate anyway. If Armstrong expects that people will believe him, then he will have to take some other steps to assure the public.

Did he personally call and apologize to the many people he hurt, such as the athletes he competed with and against, people he accused of lying, journalists he sued, sponsors or colleagues? There haven’t been any reports that he did. Did he offer to make amends for harm done to others? Again, we don’t see any indication that he has. (Armstrong has apologized to the staff of the Livestrong Foundation, the charity he founded to help cancer patients, which was called the Lance Armstrong Foundation before he was stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned from cycling.)

The bottom line: Armstrong doesn’t have credibility. Thus, there isn’t a reason to give him any sympathy or trust.

The damage has been enormous: multimillion-dollar lawsuits, lost endorsements and little chance that he will regain his reputation or his trophies. And it promises to get worse: The U.S. Justice Department announced on Feb. 22 that it has joined a civil fraud lawsuit against Armstrong under the False Claims Act. The suit accuses Armstrong and his associates of defrauding the U.S. Postal Service during their tenure with the USPS cycling team.

Show, don’t tell

There are many lessons here for PR professionals when advising managers who are under scrutiny and are facing high-interest interviews:

  • Don’t wait until you’ve been caught to start telling the truth.
  • Be contrite — and show it.
  • Personally apologize to all you have hurt. 
  • Be willing to face the tough interrogators.
  • Explain why you took the wrong actions and what you are doing to rectify the damage.
  • Pledge to do better and then back up that pledge with action.


Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.


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