This post was originally featured on FastCompany.com. The original blog, written by Nick Nanton and JW Dicks can be found here: Lance Armstrong, Branding Catastrophes, And What Not To Do
For years, cyclist champion Lance Armstrong denied using performance-enhancing drugs to aid him in his record-setting string of Tour de France titles. He stonewalled critics, threatened whistleblowers, and repeatedly denied all doping charges.
Until this week.
Armstrong threw himself at the mercy of the official court of public opinion this week--that would be Oprah Winfrey’s show – and finally admitted to doing what he’s been denying for over a decade.
Is Armstrong doing too little too late?
It’s probably too soon to tell. Armstrong, of course, has done a lot of good throughLivestrong, his cancer survivors’ charity. But unnecessary damage has been done to what was once an amazing success story simply by being unwilling to acknowledge simple facts. Armstrong’s heated denials of the drugs he is now finally acknowledging taking has resulted in behavior that some judge as being worse than the actual doping itself.
The point is you can only hold off brutal reality for so long, and the longer you try, the more you put your brand story at risk. Your authenticity begins to suffer and the public begins to lose trust in what you stand for. Since the Watergate scandal all the way back in 1974, the truth of the mantra, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” has just loomed larger and larger, especially in this area of social media transparency, where every lie gets magnified to a gargantuan scale.
So, what’s a personal or corporate brand to do when it’s confronted with an unpleasant situation that’s not about to go away on its own?
Last year, a client of ours faced his own dilemma along these lines. Tracy Myers, owner of theFrank Myers AutoMaxx dealership in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina, found his business under attack from the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) for a single phrase he had used in some YouTube videos promoting his business. They claimed the phrase was deceptive; he claimed it was just the dealership’s policy, but, nonetheless, pulled the offending videos down.
He was shocked a few months later to find out that the government agency was publicly accusing him of deceptive advertising, even though he had done everything required by the agency to comply with their requests.
Tracy didn’t take this lying down--nor was he about to let the negative news play out and harm his business. He immediately took to his social media outlets and began telling his side of the story, and quickly got a smattering of positive support from his followers. That motivated him to go back to YouTube and post his own videos explaining what had happened with the FTC and why it was unfair.
Virtually all the comments he got on the video were positive. Not only that, but some of the car dealer’s supporters got together and took their own photo holding up “Free Uncle Frank!” (Uncle Frank being the car lot’s mascot) signs, which they posted on Facebook. Tracy was also lauded for how he dealt with a potentially difficult business situation.
The truth is you can turn around a negative and find substantial support in the process. Here are three tips we believe can help improve almost any difficult situation when it comes to your personal or professional brand:
1. Get out in front of the story.
Tracy Myers didn’t wait when the FTC action hit. He immediately put out his side of the story (one of the distinct advantages social media has to offer all of us) before bad publicity could snowball. In contrast, Armstrong saw a problem he would inevitably have to confront grow to monstrous proportions before he did act. If he hadn’t been so afraid to deal with the issues, he might have found ways to mitigate the damage along the way.
2. Be as honest and transparent as possible.
Do any of us remember that late night favorite David Letterman was once embroiled in a huge sex scandal? It all went away pretty quickly--because, when it broke, Letterman at once took to the airwaves on his show to admit his culpability in a forthcoming and serious way (so forthcoming that the audience actually laughed, because they didn’t think he could possibly be serious). The incident did little to no damage to his career, simply because he handled it as honestly as possible, even though he was guilty.
3. Make the media your own.
There’s no point in playing someone else’s game, especially when, today more than ever, you can take the ball and run with it as far as you want. That’s exactly what Tracy Myers did when he used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and every other online outlet he could to get his message out. The worst you can do is put yourself in a reactive position to what someone else is saying about you; it’s better to be proactive and control how your message is delivered and presented to your public. Armstrong limiting his exposure to a single Oprah interview was actually the smartest way to do a “confession.”
Everyone faces personal and professional challenges that threaten their personal brand at some point--it’s part of being a human being. It’s how you handle those challenges that really determine what the ultimate impact will be.
When Armstrong finally decided to go on Oprah, it was at a point where he really had no choice if he ever wanted a shot at public redemption. It would have been smart to act sooner and more decisively.
As David Letterman demonstrated, we are much more forgiving of those who come clean at the first sign of trouble; it’s much harder to support someone who’s accused of playing with matches and won’t admit it until the house has burnt down. Admit quickly and self-correct (if necessary) immediately. Every second you don’t take action is another second you’ve lost to repair your reputation.