Lance Armstrong A Crisis Management Case Study

Lance Armstrong a seven times Tour De France winner and testicular cancer survivor was perhaps one of the biggest names in all of world sport and an idol and inspiration to many people. That was until this past year when allegations of doping appeared again and turned his life upside down.

Timeline of Armstrong's Career & Doping Allegations.

Timeline of Armstrong’s Career & Doping Allegations.

In May of 2012 former teammate Tyler Hamilton alleged that he and Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs together, these allegations then snowballed into an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and concluded with Armstrong admitting to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey on January 18 2013.

This scandal resulted in the loss seven sponsorship endorsements, and an estimated $30 million dollars in future earnings for Armstrong (USA Today). It also caused Armstrong and his public relations (PR) team to go into full crisis management mode.

According to Stoldt, Dittmore & Branvold a crisis can be defined as “a situation or occurrence possessing the potential to significantly damage a sport organisations financial stability and/or credibility with constituents.” According to this definition the media storm surrounding Armstrong, and more broadly cycling, can most definitely be considered a crisis.

As we can see from the timeline of events surrounding Armstrong’s career he and his PR team have used two of the four different strategies outlined in Sport Public Relations. The first strategy that was employed is the “denial posture” which has three different sub-strategies, the first of these is to “attack the accuser” and challenge the claims against the organisation/person. For Armstrong and his team this was the first reaction to the allegations.

When the allegations persisted they then moved onto strategy two “straightforward denial” by saying that Lance had never tested positive before and there was no evidence to substantiate these false claims against him.

When this again however failed they moved onto step three “scapegoating” by blaming people or groups around them saying that he didn’t feel he was cheating because “The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they didn’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field,” suggesting that he believed majority of the field was doping.

The next step was the Oprah Winfrey interview in which Armstrong admitted to doping in all seven Tour victories and thus begun using a new PR strategy the “rebuilding posture.” Under this strategy there are two possible directions to take “apology and compensation” during the Oprah interview Armstrong has taken the “apology” approach by admitting and accepting responsibility as well as apologizing to those fans he has let down through his actions.

During all of these crisis management strategies Armstrong and his PR team have had to “create symbolic messages they hope the public will interpret in the desired meaning” (Domingo). This means that at all stages of the crisis one central pivotal message was decided on and all media communications during that time were focused and built around this message to ensure that it was clearly understood by the public.

Another aspect of this scandal that was of particular interest to me was the use of new media such as Twitter to accelerate the message delivery and increase the number of channels of communication between Armstrong and the public.

The main talking point in regards to the use of Twitter in this case was the image sent out by Armstrong of him in his lounge room with all seven winners jerseys in what seemed like an act of defiance and denial of these allegations.armstrong-tweets-yellow-jerseys-tour-france-twitter

This use of Twitter falls directly in line with Hutchins who states that there has been an “increasing use of online digital media and social networking services by athletes for self-promotion, self-representation and personal expression.” Hutchins also suggests that Twitter and other online media tools have led to an “intensification of digital content production and transmission has altered the operation and supply chains of media sport.” This theory is supported during the Armstrong scandal as many news sources ran stories based on this photograph Tweeted by Armstrong, as can be seen in the Article by the Sun Newspaper ‘Lance Armstrong Post Defiant Tour De France Yellow Jersey Snap on Twitter.’

As can be seen by the examples throughout this article the past year has been a very turbulent ride for Lance Armstrong, but it is a very good learning tool for those looking to gain an insight into crisis reporting and management in regards to sport.

References and Further Reading:

  • Domingo, B. (2003). Stop slammin’ Sammy: A theoretical approach to the first 24 hours of a communications crisis in sports. Public Relations Quarterly, 48 (4), 20-22.
  • Hutchins, B. (2011) The acceleration of media sport culture: Twitter, teleprescence and online messaging, Information, Communication & Society 14(2) 237-257
  • Stoldt, G.C., Dittmore, S.W., & Branvold, S.E. (2012). ICommunicating in Times of Crisisin Sport public relations: Managing stakeholder communication (2nd Ed.) Lower Mitcham, SA: Human Kinetics. 195-215
  • Schrotenboer, B 2012, “Paying The Price: Doping Case Costs Lance Armstrong”, USA Today Sports, 18 October, accessed 12/04/2013
  • Battle, B 2012, “Lance Armstrong Post Defiant Tour De France Yellow Jersey Snap on Twitter.”, The Sun, 12 November, accessed 12/04/2013
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