With the second part of Lance Armstrong’s interview having aired recently on the Oprah Winfrey Network it is now up to the public to decide what comes next for the disgraced cyclist. So many questions remain unanswered: Is there a road to redemption? Is Lance Armstrong truly sorry about his actions? Did he take full responsibility? Was he telling the truth to Oprah and the rest of the world, or was he simply going through the motions and following some sort of Lance Armstrong public relations playbook?
While many fallen celebrities have made a soul-searching interview with Oprah the first stop on the road back into the public’s good graces, Lance Armstrong may have actually hurt his case. Just when you thought it was not possible, did he make things worse?
Armstrong has already lost his sponsors, been banned for life from cycling, stripped of his seven Tour de France victories, asked to return his Olympic medal, subjected himself and his family to an epic degree of embarrassment, admitted to bullying people who it turns out were telling the truth about his cheating, and forced to admit that he betrayed millions of adoring people across the globe who believed in him.
There are a handful of elements that are essential for any effective celebrity apology following a scandal: tell the truth about what happened, express deep regret, take responsibility for your actions and explain what you actually intend to do in order to right the wrongs that you have committed. Above all else, aim to forge an emotional bond with the public to help convince them that a second chance is deserved.
Without passing any judgment on Lance Armstrong’s sincerity, it certainly seems that he did not deliver on those essential elements.
Armstrong was selective about what truths he would reveal, evading some questions and saying he couldn’t recall key details. Many critics with inside knowledge of what actually happened expressed exasperation and anger after watching the interview. While Armstrong repeatedly acknowledged that he had erred, he also seemed to most regret getting caught and receiving a harsh punishment. While he repeatedly underscored that he put himself in his current unenviable position, he also minimized his personal responsibility and downplayed the seriousness of his actions (i.e. his team’s cheating paled in comparison to the East German doping program, he only used a small dose of EPO, he got caught up in fame and celebrity, the other cyclists were all doing drugs too, etc.). He certainly didn’t lay out specific actions that he intended to take other than the vague promise to spend the rest of his life apologizing to and asking forgiveness from those whose lives he damaged through bullying and unwarranted lawsuits.
But when it came to successfully forging an emotional bond with his audience that was where Armstrong didn’t just wobble, but crashed hard.
He often came across as cold, unfeeling, detached and incapable of empathy. The arrogance, competitiveness, ruthlessness and win-at-all-costs mentality that served him as an elite athlete seemed dormant just below the surface, revealing themselves in flashes of his steely blue eyes. While the world may have fallen in love with the fairy tale story that he sold them, it was Lance Armstrong the person who sat for the interview. To many, that man came across as unlikable and narcissistic.
While it has been said that time heals all wounds, I’m not so sure that this will prove to be the case for Lance Armstrong. The public has been thrust into the role of jilted lover, forced to accept that its romance with Lance Armstrong was consummated on a bed of lies.
Once trust is violated, especially in such an egregious matter, it can take a very long time to rebuild it. Many relationships never succeed in surviving such trauma; the damage is simply too great and the feelings of betrayal too strong.
One of the most memorable moments of the entire interview came when Winfrey had Armstrong watch video of a year-old deposition during which Armstrong vehemently denied doping and explained that to do so would risk bringing down his entire world.
Armstrong on video: “If you have a doping offense or you test positive it goes without saying that you are fired from all of your contracts. Not just the team, but there’s numerous contracts that I have that would all go away. (Voice off camera: Sponsorship agreements for example?) All of them. And the faith of all the cancer survivors around the world, so everything I do off of the bike would go away, too. And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that; it’s not about money for me, everything, it’s also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased so I don’t need it to say in a contract you’re fired if you test positive; that’s not as important as losing the support of hundreds of millions of people.”
It was chilling to watch, and eerily prophetic.
Where Lance Armstrong goes from here is anyone’s guess.
–Evan Nierman is a communications expert and founder of the public relations firm Red Banyan Group.