The swirl of attention around Lance Armstrong’s upcoming interview with Oprah is approaching a frenzy, with word already leaking about the content of the interview.
In short, he admits it.
Oprah’s couch has traditionally started the road to redemption for celebrities who have failed to live up to the public’s expectations. And an apology, which is apparently forthcoming, is almost always necessary to the process.
This, of course, got me to thinking. If Lance Armstrong were instead Lance Armstrong, Inc., a Delaware corporation, he’d have additional tools at his disposal for the reputation-saving campaign he is embarking upon. So, let’s explore just how the crisis communications plan would be different for Lance the corporation vs. Lance the celebrity.
What Lance the Corporation Might Do
- Re-branding. This is a tried and true technique for companies and other organizations that have been ensnared in scandal: Change your name. It’s been used by tobacco companies, airlines, and many others that want to get away from the past. Lance could pick something modern sounding, maybe with its roots in classical Greek. Of course, he’d then have the challenge of investing to build up the new brand. But companies do this all the time.
- New management. Oftentimes, when a corporation makes a mistake, the executives responsible have to fall on their swords. This has the public value of cutting ties to the errors of the past and letting the company move forward with reset expectations. The problem is, Lance would have a hard time finding someone to fire, as it’s really a CEO-level issue. If he could fire himself, that might help.
- Divestiture. When a business line becomes so toxic that it threatens the entire corporation’s reputation, sometimes the best thing to do is divest it and move on with the remaining businesses. We saw something like this recently with Cerberus’ decision to sell a gun manufacturer in its portfolio. If Lance could find a way to remove his cycling self from the rest of his being, that might just do the trick. The advantage of this approach is there’s no need to re-brand.
- Address liabilities. From an accounting perspective, Lance the corporation would want to move quickly to address all outstanding liabilities. He’d need to take a charge against earnings in the proper amount and then reach an agreement with regulators that calls for a cash payment but stipulates that he “neither confirm nor deny any wrongdoing.” Celebrities generally need to admit their mistakes for the public to forgive them. Companies do not.
- Lay out steps. Lastly, when a corporation goofs, it’s important for shareholders and the public to know that it will not make the same mistake twice. Thus, it lays out a plan to address its shortcomings and puts a high-profile person or team in charge. Sometimes, it’s even necessary to add independent directors to the board to assure the company will take the proper steps. Lance could actually do something like this if he stays involved in the sport of cycling.
Of course, it’s fun to speculate on this sort of thing, but in the end it’s going to be necessary for Lance to execute his communications plan, whatever it is. This will begin with how he handles the Oprah interview.
If one thing is clear, it is that the American public is very often willing to forgive. So he’s got a shot, even if he can’t rely on all the tools available to corporations.