LONDON — Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong faces a tough battle to salvage his image as the usual strategy by fallen stars of confession, apology and making amends may not be enough to appease an angry public, according to crisis management experts.
Banned for life and stripped of his race titles, Armstrong will break his silence over his alleged drug use in an interview aired on Thursday with the queen of confessions, U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
The silence was seen by some as a deliberate move to allow for all the accusations to be made against him so he could prepare himself for any possible question and then go public to explain himself in a controlled and friendly environment with Oprah.
But experts in public relations and crisis management said Armstrong’s bid for forgiveness was far from guaranteed to succeed due to the unprecedented scale of the scandal after authorities uncovered a decade of drug use and lying.
Armstrong became an international hero and inspiration after surviving cancer to win seven Tour de France titles and set up the Livestrong cancer foundation while aggressively pursuing anyone who tried to expose his cheating.
Edward Adler, partner at RLM Finsbury that specialises in crisis management, said Armstrong needed to kickstart his attempt to regain support by taking full responsibility for his actions, apologising unreservedly and sincerely with Oprah.
“The jury will be out on whether this works or not because there are so many other issues here, with law suits and other stakeholders, and he needs to convince people that he is a good guy,” said Adler.
“But if he wants to compete again, and it appears that he does, then he has to try to put this behind him. But this is a very difficult one for people to get over.”
Armstrong, 41, will join a list of fallen stars who have gone public with mea culpa confessions after high-profile crashes from favour. Such indiscretions usually fall in three categories — financial or sexual impropriety, and doping, in the case of sport.
Can image rehab work?
For many of these, some powerful, carefully scripted image-rehab designed by professional teams has helped them regain the public’s regard but none have needed to overcome the extent of Armstrong’s deceit over his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong faced a harder task than other disgraced heroes like Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton to return to favour, experts said.
U.S. President Clinton admitted to the American public in a televised speech in 1998 that he had had a relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that was wrong and he was “solely and completely responsible”.
Golfer Woods, in a controlled televised statement in 2010, apologised for his “irresponsible and selfish” behaviour after a car crash outside his Florida home triggered stunning revelations about his serial infidelity.
British actor Hugh Grant told TV chat show host Jay Leno in 1995 that he did a “bad thing” after he was caught with a prostitute while engaged to actress Elizabeth Hurley.
Late-night TV host David Letterman apologised on his own show in 2009 to his wife and staff after it was revealed he had had sexual relationsips with female staff, saying when “it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it”.
Armstrong, however, was not seen as a totally lost cause due to his charitable work, such as setting up the Livestrong cancer foundation.
“But this situation is extreme. Lance Armstrong has to give a full, unabridged apology and can’t blame anyone else,” said Lance Ignon, co-director of the New York office of strategic communications firm Sitrick & Co.
“It will take time and a great deal of energy on his part .. but we have seen other extreme cases where the force of someone’s personality and their intellect can help restore their reputation.”
Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of sports PR agency ENS Ltd that handles crisis media management, said Armstrong’s decision to go public with Oprah indicated he would probably be seeking redemption from fans who admired his charitable work rather than the sports community.
“If he manages to portray himself as a bit of a victim, more wronged than wronging, then his road to recovery will be quicker as the public can be quite forgiving,” said Hopkins.
“But sports fan hate cheats and his fall from grace in that world will be more long standing. He would be best placed to focus on charity work and try to redeem himself in that area.”