Despite a decade-plus of good deeds and a confessional-style, two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey, the deck is stacked against Lance Armstrong restoring his reputation in any significant way, say industry experts.
For the first time, Armstrong acknowledged that he took a variety of performance-enhancing drugs while winning seven Tour de France titles in an interview that partially aired Thursday night on Winfrey's OWN network. He apologized to the people he called liars after they tried to reveal his doping, even admitting he was a “bully” to some.
However, he denied allegations that he pressured teammates to dope or that he tried to influence cycling's governing agency, the International Cycling Union, when he was investigated for drug use. Armstrong added that he used no performance enhancers when he came back to the sport in 2009 and 2010.
In the days before the interview, communications experts debated what, if anything, Armstrong could do to turn his image around, collectively agreeing that Winfrey was a strong choice to be the first media personality with whom he would share his troubled history.
Talk-show megastar Winfrey, who interviewed Armstrong before, was likely selected as a way to “tightly control his message,” said Patrick Sandusky, chief communications and public affairs officer at the US Olympic Committee. Sandusky's group helps to fund the US Anti-Doping Agency, which released a report that led to Armstrong being stripped of his titles and banned from competition for life.
Had Armstrong decided to go to the cycling press, which has most closely chased the story of his drug abuse, he probably would not have received a sympathetic ear, says Ben Pester, communications manager at Future Publishing, which produces magazines like Cycling News HD and Cycling Press.
“He probably chose Oprah for the emotional factor and to not have to talk straight business,” he explains.
Both Future Publishing and Rodale, which produces Bicycling magazine, have aggressively pushed their publications' staffers as expert voices to the press on Armstrong's admission.
“At its root, it's a cycling story, and our goal is to position the magazine as an expert source on anything to do with cycling,” adds David Tratner, a senior director of communications at Rodale.
As Armstrong moves on from the Winfrey interview, the best way for him to rehabilitate his image is to become an advocate for stopping doping in the cycling world, says Rick French, chairman and CEO of Raleigh, NC-based PR agency French | West | Vaughan.
His client, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, used a similar strategy and has become a leading crusader against dog fighting. Vick pleaded guilty to having a role in a dog fighting operation in August 2007 and spent time in federal prison.
“If he becomes a force to eradicate doping, it would be the chance to generate a new legacy versus the one that has been tarnished in the last few years,” French notes.
Armstrong's messaging strategy going forward is unclear. Mark Fabiani, a principal at Fabiani & Lehane and the PR strategist for the cyclist, said that because he is “an attorney on this matter, it's tough for me to talk about how [the communications strategy] is being handled.”
History of doping vs. good works
Since Armstrong founded Livestrong in 1997, the group has raised more than $500 million to support cancer survivors and helped 2.5 million people affected by the disease with free patient navigation services, according to the organization.
Yet now that Armstrong has revealed the full extent of his doping, he is unlikely to receive much sympathy from the healthcare community despite his status as a cancer survivor.
"The cancer was a long time ago, and his lies have been repetitive,” says Christopher Wing, CEO of Scanned Health Plan, an insurance company for Medicare beneficiaries. “He was our hero, we were rooting for him.”
“He is a hero for cancer survivors, one that's been held up for many years,” explains Chris Brienza, VP at Coyne PR. “There are still people out there that look at him as inspiration, and because of that they'll look past [his admission.]”