After more than a decade of vehement denials, Lance Armstrong finally came clean last night in an interview with Oprah Winfrey about his use of performance enhancing drugs. Early reviews leaned negative: Forbes said “Lance Armstrong admitted a lot of wrongdoing during his 90-minute interview with Oprah Winfrey tonight, but he did almost nothing to win back the sympathy of the world.” CNN host Piers Morgan took it one step further, posting on Twitter that Armstrong was a “sniveling, lying, cheating little wretch…I hope he now just disappears.”
Armstrong’s recent tribulations have been of particular interest to me for two reasons: first, because of my past work as a presidential campaign spokesperson, where fighting off rumors and mitigating media crises is a daily part of one’s job; and second, because in 2004, when Lance mania was at its peak and half the world was wearing yellow Livestrong bracelets, I became the executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. In the world of bicycle advocacy, Armstrong (whom I met once) was almost a saint: the talent of Michael Jordan, the charitable commitment of Angelina Jolie, plus a dash of come-from-behind, survivor heroism.
So how did he fall so far? Some might argue it’s hubris. After all, studies have shown that power leads to overconfidence — in this case, perhaps a dangerous calculation that “no one will ever find out.” But for Armstrong himself, it was a healthy dose of justification: it wasn’t really cheating because he “didn’t do it to gain an advantage on a foe. I saw it as a level playing field.”
There’s one more shot for him to turn things around (Oprah runs the second half of her interview this evening), but so far, his redemption probably isn’t going as planned. Confessing to Oprah seemed like a good idea. It’s a well-worn path for celebrities in trouble: set up a softball interview with a sympathetic TV personality. (When I worked for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, we arranged a sit-down with Diane Sawyer immediately after his infamous “Dean Scream.”) Oprah is a trusted voice, but one who typically deals in sympathetic feature stories, rather than aggressively pursuing gotcha-style hard news. And she also had a lot to gain from the high-profile interview, given the ratings struggles of her OWN network.
Essentially, she needed to thread the needle of being a tough interview (because viewers tune in for sparks) without crossing over into being aggressive or mean (which would alienate future celebrities who might otherwise appear on the network). Though some critics, like Newday’s Verne Gay, criticized her on Twitter for showing “no passion…no push back,” generally she won plaudits for her approach, especially her strong start with yes-or-no questions that established his deception upfront.
A tough but gentle interview could have been just the right format for Armstrong to win the public back to his side. But he failed to execute on the most critical part of a mea culpa: expressing remorse that feels genuine. “Armstrong failed to do the one thing many people had been waiting for: he failed to apologize directly to all the people who believed in him, all the cancer survivors and cycling fans who thought his fairy-tale story was true,” the New York Times wrote. “Not once did he look into the camera and say, without qualification, ‘I’m sorry.'”
Indeed, from the earliest reports about Armstrong breaking his silence, the narrative has seemed strangely solipsistic. Why was he finally willing to admit wrongdoing? The media reported that he was motivated “because he badly wants to compete in triathlons and running events again” and his lifetime ban extends to those sports; a confession may win him a reprieve. Essentially, it sounded like his personal frustration at not being able to compete in a sporting event was more salient to him than the damage to his charity or remorse for his role in discrediting whistleblower teammates. Though Armstrong did show remorse and admitted he was a “flawed character” and a bully, moments shined through that indicated he might not have fully grasped his new (theoretically humbled) reality. Of Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former teammate who testified against him, he declared, “I did call her crazy…I called her crazy, I called her a bitch, but I never called her fat.”
The other question mark stemming from his interview is whether this is a full disclosure, or if he may still be shading the truth. The holy grail in crisis communication is to ensure negative news is only a “one day story.” That means you need to disclose all the bad news at once, so there’s no possibility for follow-up pieces. In the Oprah interview, Armstrong denied being the ringleader that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has portrayed him to be, and he also disputed former teammate Tyler Hamilton’s allegation that he failed a Swiss drug test and bribed officials to cover it up. If he’s telling the truth, then he should indeed fight those claims. If he’s not, however, he’ll face weeks or months of painful follow-up stories: death by 1000 cuts until the full truth comes out (and in the Internet era, it almost certainly will).
There’s no doubt the interview marks a new phase of Armstrong’s career: the deception ended, and ready for a fresh start. No one is going to excuse a top athlete using performance enhancing drugs and then lying about it. But if Armstrong truly reveals all in the final part of his interview tonight and shows genuine contrition, people can at least understand and may eventually give him another chance. America loves a hero, and even a once-tarnished, chastened hero. But it simply won’t tolerate a disingenuous one.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on January 18, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.