Crisis PR Lesson: Why Lance Armstrong’s ‘Confession’ Left Us Cold


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Crisis PR is no walk in the park for any PR professional to manage – it is usually highly emotional, stressful for all involved and a lot is at stake. Families, careers, finances and more.

However, clients who walk the burning coals early in the piece, and admit to wrongoing and apologise, tend to come out better than those who sit on the fence or generate radio silence for months THAT turning point comes to light. Aka former sporting hero Lance Armstrong who has denied allegations of performance enhancing drug use for most of his career, this once revered, seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor and his PR team made many wrong decisions in my view.

The proof is in the plethora of public and media criticism that has come thick and fast in the wake in Armstrong anti-climactic interview with TV matriarch Oprah Winfrey this week.

There are several reasons why:
1. Sorry seemed to be the hardest word: Doing a pre-recorded interview is the easier format for anyone facing a hostile audience and could have been just the right format for Armstrong to win the public back to his side. Yet he failed to execute on the most critical part of a mea culpa: expressing genuine remorse and saying three little words: I am sorry. The New York Times wrote. “Armstrong failed to do the one thing many people had been waiting for: he to all the people who believed in him, all the cancer survivors and cycling fans who thought his fairy-tale story was true. Not once did he look into the camera and say, without qualification, ‘I’m sorry.’”
2. Come clean when people still care: In the tried and true cycle of the crisis PR process, I urge my clients to tell the truth: your job is to reveal what you can and in your own words, as much as legally feasible, Armstrong probably could have redeemed some more integrity had he not fought so many allegations against him for so long. Now most of us are beyond empathy for him – game over.
3. Timeliness: You need to take control early on when and how information comes out. And, before you decide how to be honest publicly, you need to be honest internally. This is not the time to lie to those who can help you at the time of a crisis. Armstrong seems to have deceived many of his peers and support networks. The ugly truth must be shared with and discussed by key firm stakeholders, including appropriate PR and marketing staff and consultants. Holding back at this stage will only cause problems down the road. Need I say more?
4. It was no D&M: The calculated language and lack of emotion that Armstrong showed in the Oprah interview was a misjudged use of a crisis PR-meets-public-comeback situation. I am not advocating crocodile tears but arrogance and a sense of disillusion was still an over-riding part of Armstrong’s underwhelming performance, so to speak.
Crisis PR done well helps process and manages how that story can be shared with the media, in a strategic way. This only is possible when the naked truth is allowed to be shared, warts and all. Only then can anyone be strategic about how to communicate the bad news. There are scores of fallen leaders that have made come backs of sorts in the public eye after facing the music: think Shane Warne or Bill Clinton.

Done right, most decent people will say: “You are human, you made mistakes but you were big enough to face them.” The rest is always unknown but you have done the only right thing to do to even rebuild a tainted reputation.

Lance Armstrong gets the Oprah treatment

Lance Armstrong gets the Oprah treatment

The biggest crisis PR lesson from Lance Armstrong was that being dishonest never works. The truth has a funny way of always getting out, no matter how rich, famous and powerful you once were.

Tuning in: mastering a TV interview


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Facing the camera need not be a scary thing

Devastating images of the wild bushfires that have raged across the country in recent days have provided plenty of captivating news fodder. The images of hectares of bush land in parts of NSW, QLD, SA and Tasmania burning away people’s homes and destroying wildlife never cease to be shocking and heart-wrenching for viewers at home watching these scenes on their TVs or smartphones. The interviews with firefighters, every day heroes and those who have been displaced keep us all on the edge of our seats.

It is also a reminder of what makes the TV media tick. How important visuals are to tell the story – even if your story is in the business arena. In my media training business, I engage experienced TV journalists to help fine-tune the art of delivering great live or pre-recorded interviews. Here are some tips to make your next TV interview memorable for all the right reasons:

1. Get to the point: The number one rule when being interviewed on TV is to be succinct. This medium is fast-paced so hit the ground running and practice what you want to get across before going on-air. You may have score air time of 30 to 60 seconds in a news piece. In-depth interviews are rare these days as audiences have an insatiable appetite for news that is easy to digest and they want more stories covered than ever.
2. Get your tool kit right: It also goes without saying that being well-spoken, expressing yourself clearly and looking the part helps, as TV is visual. Think about how to get people at home to take notice of what you are saying as they are getting ready for work or making the evening meal.
3. Be informed: Try to be flexible because in the business of broadcasting news, reporters may ask you questions not previously expected if it links in with a topic happening that day. This is a chance to shine and become an expert.
4. Be prepared: Having had a trial run a few times ahead of the interview is so important. Always best to rehearse what you want to get across ahead of the interview. If you can’t rehearse in front of a loved one in your living room you can’t expect to be confident in front of a TV camera. And bad interviews live in our viewer’s minds just as much as great ones.
5. Be pro-active: One of the biggest mistakes that interviewees make is walking away from a TV interview feeling they hardly got started on what they wanted to say. Don’t be afraid to answer the presenter’s question and add on your key message rather than just stop. While most programs do require you to be short and sharp in your responses, if you are engaging you may get more time on-air. Likewise, one-word replies and bland responses tend to lead to interviews being cut short.
6. Be visual: Being reliant on excellent and eye-catching footage, sadly lots of excellent story ideas pitched are just not suitable for TV. When pitching to a Chief of Staff always think about what suitable footage and talent you can offer the program. They rely on this to get a story up. Even sending a relevant YouTube interview with your CEO can spark interest. And think of sharing case studies or examples with simple, cut-through language – and avoid jargon.
7. Be marketing minded: Once you get TV coverage your business can reap the benefits of online promotion of the segment on their network’s site and go into social media feeds. Many reporters are encouraged to have Twitter accounts to upload their interviews to. Why not use that to your advantage and add it to your own social media alerts and of course do upload any interviews done onto your company web site?

Enjoy the process. In my view, TV is a wonderful medium for PR and despite the changes in technology is one to stay for awhile yet.