Lance Armstrong’s career as a public figure, it would seem, is over. After all, he did not one but several of the lowest things you can do in sports (and life, really): He cheated, he lied about cheating, he allegedly harassed and persecuted those who told the truth about his cheating—and worst of all, he became an international hero in the process. Now that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has found Armstrong on the wrong end of “conclusive and undeniable proof” of a decade’s worth of performance-enhancing drugs, and he’s been banned from cycling for life and stripped of his seven cherished Tour de France titles, the public’s regard for Armstrong has tumbled from Superman status down to the depths of disappointment and scorn.
But if disgraced heroes like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Martha Stewart, and Tiger Woods taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a way to crawl back into the public’s good graces—with the help of some powerful image-rehab magic conjured up by a trained professional, that is.
What, if anything, can be done to help rebuild Armstrong’s image? Lance Armstrong, after all, isn’t just a man. He’s a marketable brand, too. Since it launched in 1997, his foundation Livestrong (formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation) has raised more than $470 million for cancer awareness and research. So I asked four professionals in brand management, public relations, and consulting what advice they would give to Armstrong to help salvage what’s left of Brand Lance: Karl Heiselman, CEO of international brand consultancy Wolff Olins; Erin Patton, a former Nike executive and brand management consultant who represented the Williams sisters and Stephon Marbury in partnership deals; Danielle Robinson, a Madison Avenue brand strategist; and David Simmons, a Los Angeles-based sports consultant who formerly worked with the Dodgers. And while their approaches didn’t always match up, all four agreed on one thing: Even though Armstrong has a more complicated road back to credibility than many other fallen stars before him, he’s nowhere close to a lost cause. From their responses emerged a simple plan outlining what Lance Armstrong (the man) can do to save Lance Armstrong (the franchise).
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Step 1: CONFESS YOUR SINS. TO OPRAH. (Check. His interview with the talk show host airs in two segments on Thursday night and Friday night.)
Danielle Robinson: An apology is necessary, a confession is necessary, and some form of answer to the question of why. Why the doping? Why lie about it? For a brand as strong as his, and for allegations as severe as his, why? Why do that? That brings the element of humanity.
I will say this: He did it right by going to Oprah. Or Oprah did it right by going to him. If I ever do anything wrong, I’m confessing to Oprah.
Oprah comes with a lot of credibility and trust. The public trusts her to get to the bottom of the story. … It might be a painful interview, because she’s going to ask the tough questions. She’s going to ask why. But hopefully [his PR team] prepped him on how to interview with Oprah. It could work to his advantage if he allows her to get to the truth—because if the truth comes out, I’d say he literally does not have to do another interview if he doesn’t want to. Talk to Oprah, she gets the truth, and his PR team can say, “We’re done.”
Step 2: CONFRONT THE CONTROVERSY HEAD-ON. … OR JUST LAY LOW FOR A WHILE. EITHER WAY.
David Simmons: He needs to go on the PR tour. Take any interview and answer every question.
Lance got caught after he [competed]—and that makes it much tougher. If you look at the people like Andy Pettitte, Michael Vick, or Roger Clemens, or Barry Bonds, they all got caught while they were playing. They could keep playing, whereas Lance has retired [from his sport]. That changes the game plan, from a PR standpoint, as to what he can and cannot do. He’s not a competitive cyclist anymore—he lost what he’d accomplished, and he can’t get [those accomplishments back] by riding the bike again. Now he’s just a public figure, so what he does with that brand equity he built up is what he can still do. … He’s still a cancer survivor, he’s still a reputable name.
Robinson: Don’t create a story where there isn’t one. Who did that well? Tiger Woods did it well. The scandal broke and he went silent. All things shut down. That’s one of the quickest ways to not create a story. It allows the public to digest it, number one. And it allows some room for forgiveness. We have examples of that in our personal lives—the further you are from a situation, the more able someone is to see something in a fresh light and allow the forgiveness to take place.
Perfect example of someone who has not followed that rule well is Chris Brown. He goes off in the midst of a PR crisis and just continues down a behavior pattern that is ripe for story-making and headlines.
Karl Heiselman: If he steps out of the spotlight and continues to step out of the spotlight, then his brand is sunk.
Step 3: TAKE UP A NEW CHARITY PROJECT.
Simmons: I think he’s going to have to go the charitable route. If he maybe opened some Lance Armstrong biking schools in inner cities or something of that nature, that could help. Because his career is over—but his name could still mean something.
Heiselman: My advice for Lance would be to take on a new cause. Something like anti-doping—and really own it. He’s going to need to essentially re-fill the Lance Armstrong brand with something new.
He has to mean it, obviously. But if he really grabbed ahold of it in an honest, transparent way and became a spokesman for anti-doping, that seems likely to be the most head-on way of dealing with his credibility issue.
Step 4: DON’T RAT OUT YOUR FELLOW DOPERS TO GET YOUR SENTENCE REDUCED. OR, YOU KNOW, DO.
Heiselman: That’s a tricky one. On one hand, nobody likes a snitch. But if he became a spokesperson for anti-doping and really meant it, perhaps that could help his cause. But my advice would be to do that much, much later, and in a way that has more credibility. If he’s going to rat people out right [away], he could be doing it potentially in order to shift the blame away from himself. That could hurt his credibility.
Erin Patton: I think part of the process for him is to be as truthful as possible. People will be watching, and what they’ll be watching for is, Are there still cover-ups? Is there still a desire to hide from the public?
It’s almost like Tiger Woods being at a gentlemen’s club a few years after [his infidelity scandal]. People will be so quick to pounce on that. If he just happens to be in the company of a mystery female, TMZ takes the picture, it all comes up again. Same thing with Lance: little room for error. People will have the sense that he’s still holding back, not quite coming clean, and it makes it that much more difficult to really put it behind him.
Step 5: MAKE PEACE WITH THE MEDIA.
Simmons: [When Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte admitted to using steroids in 2009], he came out and held a press conference. Andy Pettitte was a leader of the New York Yankees; he was one of the core four Yankees when they won the World Series four times in five years. He was well respected by the media and the fans, and therefore when he apologized nobody cared and he got to come back and keep pitching.
Lance lied to [a lot of] reporters. The Sunday Times in England—that was a huge one. They published stories [about the suspicion of Armstrong’s doping] and got sued for libel, when it turned out the reporter was right. This time I don’t think the media will allow him to exit successfully back into the world.
Barry Bonds is another prime example—probably the second-most famous cheater, after Lance. He hated the media, so the media was out to get him for years. After he cheated, he didn’t have a road back.
Step 6: DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM LIVESTRONG—AND DON’T BE SURPRISED IF YOU’RE NOT MISSED.
Patton: I’m willing to bet a lot of what prompted his admission is the realization that there are a lot of people who are dependent upon the success of that foundation. There are a lot of people who have invested time, talent, and resources into its success, and I believe he recognizes the good it’s done and what it needs in order for it to go on. While he’ll always be inextricably linked to Livestrong, it’s in many ways time to create distance between the message and the messenger.
Livestrong was all about overcoming odds, working hard, pushing the boundaries of what you can accomplish physically. So to find out that all of that was supported with the use of performance-enhancing drugs totally eradicates the core brand DNA. It would almost be similar to if, during Michael Jordan’s basketball career, people had questioned why he could fly so high. From Nike’s perspective, and Michael’s, it was Air Jordan, but [it would have been damaging] if we found out Michael had jet propulsion in his sneakers.
Heiselman: Perhaps Livestrong should use a different spokesperson as the face of the foundation, or perhaps several spokespeople. Maybe everyday heroes. Teachers, firemen, actors—people from all walks of life. The Livestrong brand in the past was so tied up with one personality that that’s kind of a risk. … I think it’s an opportunity for Livestrong to think about how they take their mission forward in an even more powerful way.