By Mike Mulvihill
Late last week, Lance Armstrong ceded his multi-year fight with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say: ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said. “I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven tours since 1999. The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation (Livestrong) and on me leads me to where I am today—finished with this nonsense.”
In a sport (professional cycling) riddled with performance enhancing drugs, Armstrong won seven Tour de France races without a positive drug test, yet was constantly accused and systematically pursued by anti-doping investigations that produced circumstantial if not hard evidence of performance enhancing drug use.
His chief antagonist, USADA Chief Executive Travis Tygart, called Armstrong’s move sad but said it hailed an important step toward ending cheating in sport which costs honest athletes their place on the podium. “This is a heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture of sport, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition.”
Whether guilty of cheating or not, from a crisis communication standpoint, Armstrong accomplished a few important objectives in taking action last week.
- Be proactive. It is difficult to manage a race – and a crisis – from behind the peloton. Better to pick your battles, manage the debate and focus resources upon the issues you want to concentrate on rather than waiting for the other guy to make their move.
- Stop feeding the news cycle. One of the primary objectives in a crisis is to stop creating news about the crisis. By ending an investigation that could have continued on for months if not years, Armstrong has put continuing media coverage of this investigation to rest. (Albeit, other investigations may follow.)
- Mitigate the damage. Armstrong has not admitted guilt and may have ended the investigation at a critical point when hearings would have made available to the public testimony and evidence that may have been damaging to him even if insufficient to prove guilt. And while the headlines last week trumpeted the USADA’s statement that Armstrong would be stripped of his seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, USADA does not have the authority to take such an action. This ruling was handed down by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The races in question took place in France and are under the jurisdiction of Tour de France officials and the International Cycling Union. The USADA can recommend the titles be stripped. And under typical circumstances, the governing bodies would accept the recommendation. But Lance Armstrong is not a typical circumstance. And in fact, the International Cycling Union has challenged the USADA’s authority on this matter, and they are likely to ignore the recommendation.
- Build a bank of goodwill. Armstrong’s personal battle with testicular cancer and his Lance Armstrong Foundation (www.livestrong.org), which put almost $30 million into programs that serve cancer survivors in 2011alone, is well known and well regarded. The Foundation has helped 2.5 million cancer survivors with free patient navigation services. There are more than 1,000 grassroots Livestrong Day events held in 65 countries annually to support the cancer battle. Millions of people wander around the country each day sporting yellow Livestrong bracelets. Armstrong’s contributions to social causes mean consumers will continue to respect him, which will allow companies to retain him without a hit to their bottom lines.
- Protect the ongoing viability of your business. For now at least, since there is no admission of guilt, all of Armstrong’s sponsors – many which are also Foundation/Livestrong sponsors – are standing by him. A Nike spokesman stated they plan to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is a named sponsor of Livestrong, said, “Our partnership with Lance remains unchanged.” Same for Oakley and Honey Stinger. The most wavering statement was made by Trek, a bike company that sponsors Armstrong, which said it is analyzing the situation and following developments. No small feat when you consider that Forbes estimates Armstrong could lose an estimated $10 million a year in product endorsements and speaking fees. But for now, everyone is checking the bet.
I am neither a Lance Armstrong supporter nor hater. I have no position on whether I think he is manipulating the situation to evade the inevitable or whether he did manage to perform superhuman feats without the help of performance enhancing drugs. Regardless of the intent, he took a page out of a solid crisis management plan and for that I give him some credit. But make no mistake, if he violated the first rule of crisis management – be honest – he is doomed.