So, Lance Armstrong lied about doping. Or, at least that’s what he’s expected to tell Oprah in a two-part interview special airing this Thursday and Friday.
But is anyone surprised? Probably not. The reason? As much as Lance Armstrong protested to the contrary, evidence of his alleged doping grew exponentially with every passing day.
The crisis PR lesson from Lance Armstrong is this: Lying never works. The truth has a nasty habit of getting out, no matter how much you try to prevent that from happening.
The only way to manage a crisis is to tell the truth, in your own way, on your own terms. That’s the last thing most law firms or companies want to do when faced with a crisis situation, but it’s the best way. The truth will come out; a partner will blab at a “just us friends” cocktail party or an aggrieved former employee will spill to an all-too-receptive reporter. It’s just a matter of time.
You need to act first, and quickly, to control when and how information comes out. And, before you decide how to be honest publicly, you need to be honest internally. This is not the time to sugar-coat or shade the truth. Every detail of a situation – good, bad and ugly – must be shared with and discussed by key firm stakeholders, including appropriate PR and marketing staff and consultants. Holding back at this stage will only cause problems down the road.
When everything is laid out, then you can make informed, strategic decisions about how to communicate the bad news. That’s really what you’re doing in crisis PR: getting the bad news out in a controlled way so it does the least amount of damage. You may wait until a reporter finds a lead and calls. That’s fine. But you will not be able to respond properly to that reporter if you haven’t done the initial task of laying everything out internally and being honest.
What’s the benefit of being honest when it comes to crisis PR? Done right, people will say “OK, not great, but at least they’re acknowledging it” in response to your bad news, rather than “Well, it’s about darned time. What jerks.” Lying only serves to stoke anger and outrage, which is, I’m afraid, what Lance Armstrong may now realize.