Although Ryan Lochte, the 12-time Olympic medalist, has never been on the iconic game show Truth or Consequences, his antics in Rio could have been its own episode. On the show, contestants were given a couple of seconds to truthfully answer an impossible trivia question. When they couldn’t answer, they were given a zany or embarrassing stunt to perform. Similarly, Lochte, perhaps through lack of consideration of the public relations consequences, led the entire Olympics-viewing world on a bizarre odyssey of his own portrayal of truth or consequences.
In addition to the obvious ethical and moral issues of the star athlete being caught in a largely self-made controversy and overlooking the consequences, what about the public relations issues surrounding honesty?
On August 14, Ryan Lochte claimed he and three other Olympians were forced out of a Rio de Janeiro taxi and robbed at gunpoint after a night out partying. When police investigated, different stories began to surface. A surveillance video from a gas station shows a gunman, but claims that the gas station was vandalized complicated matters. Then the translations – oh, the translations!—facts recorded by the police from English to Portuguese, and back, offered little resemblance to the previously emerged themes. Lochte left Brazil, yet his compatriots were held at the airport and released for a large fee. From here, the story becomes incredibly convoluted. Rio police recommended Lochte face charges for providing false testimony. Lochte made an apology for his behavior, saying and exaggerated the story. It was clear that something nefarious happened to Lochte, but lost good will through his own mishandling of the situation.
Public relations consequences then followed for Lochte, as he swiftly lost lucrative endorsements including Speedo and Ralph Lauren. Some sponsors claimed the departure to Lochte’s "contract expiration." Really? Who could possibly think that comment was a good idea? Hypocrisy and excuse-making are reasons the PR industry gets a bad name.
If the company is pulling support due to a controversy, say so. Even if his contract were expiring, a good issues manager would have considered extending the contract or staying out of the ruckus so as not to make the organization appear precipitous, fickle, or judgmental. But, where were the PR pros during this crisis? Scads of lawyers were on hand, but comms pros were suddenly scarce. Not once in the seemingly-endless news cycle of the Lochte issue did a PR pro step to the fore and explain withdrawing or keeping sponsorship of the swimmer. It was like the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series and the attorneys stepped up to the plate.
As long as public relations counsel defers to legal counsel, our function will never earn a true seat in management at the right hand of the CEO. Yes, it is true attorneys know law, statues, and torts better than PR pros do. But we know reputation, ethics, news media, and responding to crises better than most lawyers. It’s time for public relations to swing the bat. Get in the ring, jump to the fore, and comment on Lochte. By explaining the situation from a public relations perspective, other athletes with earning potential might think twice before embellishing.
Public relations pros need to explain why the truth is important to their organizations, their clients, and the people they represent. If someone had counseled Lochte before the trip to Rio about what happens to sponsorships when controversy erupts, he might not have embellished his story. Warning organizations, people, and clients of the PR consequences of untruthful communication should be in the repertoire of what we do every day. The potential loss of millions of dollars, a sullied reputation, and being barred from competition by the IOC are enough punitive damages to quickly sober up most athletes.
What about the truth-telling responsibility of his sponsors?
If you are the PR representative for Speedo, for example, how would you approach the decision to keep or drop Lochte? Did he go too far with his story or was it a youthful indiscretion that some rehabilitation would soon render an endearing point of growth? Perhaps the ethical optics of this situation will not merge with the mission of your company. There are many things to consider, but above all, truth and honest communication should drive these considerations.
After protestors accosted Lochte on Dancing with the Stars, the issue of his lying has finally left the news cycle. But, should we make every effort to learn from this fiasco in highlighting the importance of ethics and honesty. Lochte maybe hasn’t learned his lesson, but we can.
Shannon Bowen is a professor who researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the Board of Directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column focuses on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.