What Leaders & PR People Can Learn from Lance Armstrong: Denial & Crisis Communication

By Gerard Braud

Lance Armstrong’s denial of doping over the years provides a valuable crisis communications and public relations case study for analyzing denial by powerful people and how they communicate in a crisis.

This is important for two reasons:

1) Public relations people may give excellent advice and professional council, but be rebuffed by their corporate leaders.

2) Corporate leaders may be blinded by the view from their high perch and ignore the wise council of their public relations professionals.

Lance Armstrong appears to have shifted from a position of denial to a position of doing his duty and coming clean.

Denial is also a critical marker in crisis communications, especially in a smoldering crisis. Penn State is a perfect example of an entire institution where the leaders were in denial.

As a rule, the longer you remain in denial, the more you cause monetary and reputational harm to the institutions with which you are associated.

Lance Armstrong has harmed his Livestrong Charity, his sponsors and his businesses. (PR Daily, CNN)

This is true for denial at Penn State and many other organizations with allegations of child sexual abuse being swept under the rug.

PR people – When you see denial, urge the leader to come clean. If they don’t come clean and follow your advice, then it is time for you to polish your resume and find a job where you are respected for your advice and where the leaders have higher ethics

Leaders – When your public relations team tells you that the best thing to do is to come clean, please humble yourself to take their advice.

Here are a few important leadership lessons.

In every crisis I have witnessed and in every case study I have analyzed, individuals in leadership positions follow distinctive, easy to identify patterns that foreshadow their future success or failure.

• Some leaders do their duty, while others are in denial.

• Some take action, while others are arrogant.

If a leader does their duty and takes action, then their constituents (employees, stakeholders, etc.) will be responsible and remain loyal. However, when the person in the leadership position is in denial and is arrogant, their constituents blame everyone for the failings that occur, and the individual in denial and showing arrogance also blames everyone for his or her failings. (In the case of Lance Armstrong, he has spent years blaming his accusers.)

Remember this:

Duty vs. Denial

Action vs. Arrogance

Being Responsible vs. Blame

 

The best way to exhibit leadership in a crisis is to plan ahead on a clear sunny day, starting with a three-plan approach including a crisis communications plan, an incident command plan and business continuity plan.  Armstrong makes a perfect example for this three-plan approach because he is a leader and CEO who is continuously in the media, he is a brand, and he runs a business.  Most organizations and leaders are up to date on their incident command and business continuity plans, but most fail to plan for speaking to the media, employees, and other key audiences.

My crisis communications plans usually have 100 or more pre-written and pre-approved templates, each containing the words a leader would

use to communicate when “it” hits the fan, especially during the early hours of a crisis when emotions and anxiety are high.

As new issues arise, a document must be created for these new issues. This is especially true of smoldering issues, such as allegations harmful to the brand. Having the proper statement depends upon the leader telling the truth and not being in denial.

The best time to write such templates is on a clear sunny day and the worst time to write and formulate your words is in the throes of a crisis.

Managing a business and making money are too often the characteristics executives consider the mark of a good leader.

In my world, a leader is someone who uses effective communications in critical times to get their audience and themselves through what may be our darkest hours, so we can emerge into a bright new day.

Feel free to download this PDF and share it with your fellow leaders and PR teams.

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