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The Reselling Of Lance: A Job Too Big Even For Oprah

Lance Armstrong speaks with Oprah Winfrey during taping for the show <em>Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive</em> in Austin, Texas, on Monday. The interview airs Thursday and Friday on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
George Burns
Lance Armstrong speaks with Oprah Winfrey during taping for the show Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive in Austin, Texas, on Monday. The interview airs Thursday and Friday on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

You may have heard that banned-for-life pro cyclist Lance Armstrong, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, has admitted to doping.

You may have heard that he apologized (tearfully, reportedly) to employees at Livestrong, the foundation he started in 1997 after surviving testicular cancer.

You may have heard that he reached out to make nice with people in the cycling world whom just months ago he was branding as liars and worse, and that he may pay back some bike team sponsor money.

Feel manipulated yet?

The rapid rollout of Lance 2.0, the acknowledgment and apology tour that culminates with the interview's airing on Thursday and Friday, has given us all a front-row seat to the workings of the modern-day reputation reset.

A more conversational than confrontational sit-down with Winfrey on his home turf of Austin, Texas. A newly humbled public mien. A revamped Twitter profile that tells his more than 3.8 million followers this: Met patience in 1996 but only now am I getting to know and appreciate her.

But just what multimillionaire Armstrong can accomplish with this orchestrated stab at humility and contrition, neither of which has been part of his hyperaggressive persona in the past, is, by most assessments, negligible.

The timing is late, the damage is done, legal challenges are ahead, and the conversion story — given Armstrong's history — is a difficult sell even for the savviest and most beloved of celebrities, crisis experts tell us.

"Socrates gave the most famous apology in all of literature and history, and he still drank the hemlock," says Keith Hearit, author of Crisis Management by Apology. (Discuss amongst yourselves.)

What's The Upside?

Public apologies are tricky business, from the timing to the message to what had come before.

"People think the apology exchange is magic," Hearit says. "I call it the rhetoric of failure. You're basically saying, 'I have no defense.' "

He cites then-GOP vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon's 1952 televised "Checkers speech" as a rare exception. Nixon used his wife's "respectable Republican cloth coat" and a backer's gift of a cocker spaniel named Checkers to defend himself against accusations of using money from a secret fund to pay political expenses.

In 1968, Nixon became the 37th president of the United States.

Armstrong, 41, stripped of seven Tour de France victories, isn't running for political office but clearly wants to regain a foothold in the limelight. Potentially as a triathlete (if his doping ban allows), and certainly as a voice for cancer survivors, although he stepped down from the Livestrong board this fall after an official report came out detailing careerlong allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.

But his biggest challenge to remaking his damaged brand remains the strong and long duration of his doping denials, says Hearit, a Western Michigan University professor.

"Apologize too early, then we criticize you for not enough moral reflection," he says. "If you wait too long, we see you as someone who doesn't get it, and it is going to be seen as another crass public relations move."

"Needless to say, I'm surprised, from a tactical level, that he's doing this," Hearit says, "as opposed to going the route of saying, 'I joined the church, I engaged in meditation, I became a Tibetan monk, I realized the error of my ways.' "

While Timothy Coombs says he's also puzzled by the timing — he's among experts we spoke with who said Armstrong would have done better to end his fight in October when the doping agency released its damning report — he sees an upside for the athlete.

"Armstrong wants to write the final ending to the story, and if you give a story an ending, then people leave the story alone," says Coombs, who has written extensively about managing public crises. "He needs to do it. He needs to end the story."

Not that he sees Armstrong's Winfrey interview as having much potential to advance his image with the general public.

"I think it will leave him pretty much where he is now," Coombs says. "People have decided already whether they love him or hate him."

Armstrong obviously has to give a good performance. (On Twitter late Monday, Winfrey said she had just wrapped up more than 2 1/2 hours with Armstrong and reported, "He came READY!")

But, both Coombs and Hearit say, the degree to which his intended audience perceives his Oprah sit-down as a "performance" is a key to whether the decision to submit to her questioning — no matter how lawyered-up and orchestrated — will ultimately be viewed as a smart one.

The Audience

The only positive remaining in Armstrong's public life, as crisis manager George Haddow sees it, is the small but deep well of support from the cancer survivor community that views him as a potent source of inspiration.

His gain from the interview, he says, will be lifting the burden of continued denials of what has been proved largely beyond doubt, and "to get him off the hook with the public so Livestrong can function again."

The New Orleans-based Haddow knows something about rebuilding public reputations: He went to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency the year after it was excoriated for its miserable response to Hurricane Andrew, among other stumbles.

At the time, Haddow says, every story about FEMA led with then-Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings' characterization of the agency as the "sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known."

Haddow considers it a point of pride that after his tenure with FEMA during the Clinton administration, that particular characterization no longer appeared high up in stories about the agency.

"It never disappeared, and it won't ever entirely go away," Haddow says. "But maybe what Armstrong is trying to do is similar — to push the doping allegations farther down in his own obituary, maybe to the second or third paragraph instead of the first."

Haddow, however, is among the most skeptical about Armstrong's motives and his potential for success.

"He broke the golden rule," he said. "He lied."

Haddow notes that his wife has pointed to another hurdle Armstrong faces with more than half of the nation's population: his relationships with women. In particular, his 2006 dumping of his fiancee, singer Sheryl Crow, at the same time a national women's magazine featured a photo of her modeling her wedding gown, and shortly before she revealed her diagnosis of breast cancer.

"You get tarred by this, and I don't know how you get out of it," he says. "I can't figure out who's going to get more benefit out of this — Lance or Oprah."

Most vote Oprah, who will score ratings for her struggling cable network, OWN.

The tragedy of Armstrong — or one of the tragedies, says Coombs — is that he is such a fascinating story, "the interweaving of two things, race champion and cancer survivor."

"When he went back to the [Tour de France] after cancer, he didn't even have to win," Coombs says. "It was already a great survivor story."

It isn't so great anymore. His cheating, even in a sports culture where doping has been endemic, has made sure of that, high-octane public relations campaign or no.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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