His words were unequivocal, his face somber. To Oprah Winfrey's direct questions about whether he had used banned substances to enhance his athletic performance, Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of what is considered to be the most grueling sports event in the world, cycling's Tour de France, answered simply, "Yes."
The man who became an American hero of mythic proportions by beating life-threatening cancer, dominating his sport and raising many millions of dollars for cancer sufferers is now, once and for all, life-size.
For years Armstrong waged total war against his critics, including journalists who implied that he had taken drugs. But he could no longer keep up the pretense of righteous indignation. After the U.S. Department of Justice dropped a case against him, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency conducted its own investigation into Armstrong. The revelation this past fall of damning evidence that he and his teammates had doped from 1999 to 2005 shattered the cyclist's reputation.
He now faces the prospect of climbing a mountain steeper than any he ever conquered on a bike -- that of rebuilding his personal brand. "The story [of my life] was so perfect for so long," Armstrong said in the much-publicized interview that aired on Winfrey's OWN network last night. "Now [it's] so bad, and so toxic."
Joey Reiman, the founder and CEO of an Atlanta-based branding consultancy and author of The Story of Purpose (Wiley, 2012), thinks that story could still have a happy ending. "Lance could become Sir Lancelot if he had a greater purpose," Reiman says. "When brands don't operate for a purpose beyond themselves, they get into trouble."
Tactically there are three things Lance should do to redeem himself, says Reiman.
1. Speak directly to the people.
Lance should make a television spot appealing directly to the American people. Reiman suggests the following copy: "I cheated the odds. I cheated the wind. I cheated you." By laying out his life in such stark terms, Armstrong can make a heartfelt apology while reminding people of what was admirable about him. "We can all celebrate how he cheated cancer," says Reiman.
Businesses can take the same road to redemption. In a crisis of trust, whether large or small, get out in front of the situation and speak directly to those you have wronged. These people may be your customers, clients or business associates. Let them know you understand the magnitude of your fault and remind them of your good qualities.
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2. Ride for redemption.
Lance should get back on his bike, but not to compete. Reiman suggests a cross-country ride, stopping at hospitals and schools in every city to speak to children about cheating, lying and bullying. Armstrong could have a documentary film crew follow him and create streaming web videos of his journey.
"This is a Tour de Trust," Reiman says, pointing out that it's possible for disgraced athletes to become symbols for causes they once ignored. Football player Michael Vick "went from quarterbacking dog fights to becoming an animal-rights activist."
Similarly, business owners must move from ads to actions. While it's important to demonstrate good intentions in the wake of a scandal, excellence is a 24/7 job. Customer service, employee management and other aspects of your business should be visibly admirable. "Brands that take action are the winners. Brands that just do ads add nothing to the world," Reiman says.
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3. Do an act of good faith.
Over the years, the Livestrong Foundation sold millions of yellow Livestrong bracelets, symbols of the fight against cancer that were also symbols of Lance's winning lifestyle. Now many people may be reluctant to wear them.
Armstrong should ask everyone to hand in their bracelets and offer, for each one returned, to donate an amount of money out of his own pocket to the treatment of cancer patients. Companies that have been caught selling defective products can use a similar tactic to win back the public's goodwill.
Ultimately, however, these gestures will ring false if Lance doesn't go back to his roots as an advocate for cancer sufferers, Reiman says. If he does, he could become bigger than ever. "If you have a purpose beyond yourself as a brand, if you stand for something meaningful, everything else will follow," Reiman says. "The money will follow, the people will follow and the reputation will follow."
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