7 Lessons That Ryan Lochte’s Olympic Crisis Can Teach PR Pros
Your brand and company may never employ a 12-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer such as Ryan Lochte as its celebrity spokesperson. But oh, lordy – we as communications and marketing professionals can receive a master class in what NOT to do during a crisis from Lochte’s self-immolation at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. As you and tens of millions of people from Burma to Bangor know, Lochte lied – to his mother, to Rio de Janeiro police and to the global news media – about a drunken episode of vandalism involving him and three fellow swimmers at a gas station.
Originally characterized by Lochte as his being robbed at gunpoint, the claim imploded thanks to security camera video footage and other information that proved the tale was a fabrication. Sponsors from Speedo to Ralph Lauren fell away from Lochte, as social media posters and journalists feasted on the crushed reputation of the 32-year-old Olympian. AdAge quoted a sports marketing expert as saying Lochte had become nothing less than “radioactive” for endorsers.
So what could Lochte have done differently? And, more importantly, what can your company learn from the metaphorical burning of Lochte at the media stake – so your brand doesn’t get torched by the same crisis flubs? We checked in with two of the country’s most respected crisis counselors – Jon Austin, former Northwest Airlines PR chief who regularly consults on crisis communications, and Jim Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru® and author of “Lukaszewski on Crisis Communications” – to hear what insights you can glean from Ryan Lochte’s gaffes:
Lesson #1 - Digital Trails Now Make Lying Nearly Impossible
Remember then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s surprise when a hidden camera at a private fundraiser caught him dismissing 47 percent of the US electorate and joking that it “would have been helpful to be Latino” in running for the White House?
Welcome to the era of presumptive recording, in which you have to assume that your CEO or spokesperson’s every rude gesture, sexist comment and thoughtless action will be captured, posted, tweeted and broadcast – sometimes within minutes. The same goes for any incriminating digital files – e-mails, documents and presentations – that might reveal your company’s most embarrassing actions. You may believe they’re hidden safely away on your company’s server, but the reality is that a renegade hacking collective, a bored 15-year-old in North Korea or a 20-year-old former employee with an iPhone and a grudge can crack your secrets wide open.
“Everything you do is on camera or leaves some other digital trail,” warns Austin. “Did you see how many cameras there were at that gas station in Rio? At least a dozen, and they recorded the incident from every angle. There were also cameras recording them leaving the club and at the Olympic village when they came back.”
The lesson for communicators? “If you have a narrative,” says Austin, “it had better be backed up by the digital evidence, because that material is coming out,” no matter what its format might be.
Lesson #2 - Don’t Blame The News Media
In his vague apology for misbehavior in Rio, Lochte protested “there has already been too much said and too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend . . .”
Who was at fault? Lochte identified the guilty parties during an interview on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” saying journalists had taken his “huge mistake” and made it into “the worst weeks of his life.” Digging the hole deeper, Lochte added, “We’re just trying to get this over with. It’s been dragged out way too long. The media has taken this to a whole new level.” Raise your hands if you believe that demonizing the news media could ever be an effective strategy to divert attention from your own mistakes.
Marvels Lukaszewski of Lochte’s responses: “Olympic athletes live in a news media dominated bubble of incredible intensity. Put a lot of media in one place, like the Olympics, act like a jerk, and you become the world’s jerk, no matter how many medals you’ve won.”
Lesson #3 – Apologize – No Really, Sincerely Apologize
Along with the term “non-denial denial” – coined by editor Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post to describe the Nixon Administration’s evasive responses during Watergate – corporate communicators should be wary of issuing what can only be called a non-apology apology.
Witness Ryan Lochte’s apology – posted on August 19 via Twitter – which began well with the words: “I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend – for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning.” But then Lochte slid into self-pity: “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country – with a language barrier – and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.”
If anything, Lochte’s lame mea culpa added to the ridicule and outcry. His words were compared to the Deepwater Horizon explosion apology of BP CEO Tony Hayward, who had said “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back” and Mylan CEO Heather Bresch’s recent response to the EpiPen price scandal: “No one’s more frustrated than me.” Lochte continued this flailing strategy in places like ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America,” where he said, “the emotional part is the hardest thing. The past two weeks have been the lowest part of my life.”
PR Week magazine called Lochte’s statements “a vaguely worded apology that appeared to back away slightly from the robbery claim but never quite said what it was apologizing for.” A real apology isn’t brain surgery: If your company or brand is going to apologize, then do so sincerely (or at least make it sound sincere). Keep in mind the quote (variously attributed to Groucho Marx, film magnate Sam Goldwyn and comic George Burns): “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Judging from the firestorm on social media, Lochte didn’t come close to making an apology his followers would find “sincere.”
“Executives and leaders, wealthy people and famous athletes never truly feel they have to apologize for anything, no matter how egregious,” muses Lukaszewski. “Powerful people who screw up whine a lot. I’ve found that executives and famous people, like athletes, actually resent being asked to apologize. They believe that whatever they do is important and that only their contributions should be recognized. Any behavior they exhibit should be admired, even tolerated, and mistakes should be ignored. Powerful people will do almost anything to avoid apologizing.”
So what does a gold medal, authentic apology sound like – whether it be an Olympic athlete apologizing for his misbehavior or an executive apologizing for lying about a defect in his company’s product? (We’re thinking of you Dalkon Shield IUD manufacturer A.H. Robins Company, and Volkswagon with your 11 million sneaky emission control “defeat devices,” and of every tobacco executive who testified before Congress about how open and honest cigarette companies had been about their cancer-causing products.)
Says Lukaszewski: “An authentic apology:
- Talks only about the suffering of the victims that have been caused,
- Explains how such errors were made in believable, humble ways,
- Explains the personal sacrifices the perpetrator will impose on themselves to make amends for the damage caused, and
- Asks for forgiveness only when it has been earned through appropriate and transformational behavior by the perpetrator.”
Lesson #4 - Don’t Believe Your Brand Can Contain A Lie
It was Ben Franklin who quipped, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” (Yeah, I know that quote is attributed to the TV show ‘Pretty Little Liars,” but even that’s a lie!) PR professionals must recognize that false statements made by clients will, eventually, be undermined by conflicting accounts offered up by CPAs, secretaries, lower-level employees, disgruntled ex-employees and even by family members of employees.
“Conspiracies – even stupid, trivial ones like this – are vulnerable, fragile creatures,” says Austin. “If your spin on something relies on other people telling the same lie, you’re going to lose (and should). That’s particularly true when the lie is made up on the fly in the back of a cab in Rio at 5:00 in the morning by four drunk guys whose best talents are swimming really fast.”
The Wall Street Journal noted that Lochte’s fabrication might not have been revealed to the public at all, except that Lochte’s mother told a Fox Sports Australia reporter on a hotel shuttle that she was upset that her son had been robbed at gunpoint. The reporter posted the mother’s story on Twitter, which went viral with over 3,000 retweets. That inspired Lochte to double-down on the false story on his Instagram account and then swear to NBC-TV that “we wouldn’t make this up.” But he did, oh how he did.
“There’s a line from a BB King song, that goes: ‘Nobody loves me but my mother. . . and she could be jiving me too,’” says Austin. “That applies here. As I understand it, this got started because a reporter happened to be talking to his mom (at right) who recounted what her son had told her. Then, when the story was played back to Ryan, rather than deflate it – which he could have done right there – he went with it.”
“Sometimes your ‘friends’ and relatives who love you the most are your biggest problem,” concludes Austin. “If you’ve got a problem, make sure all of your spokespeople are on message; there’s often a critical moment when an issue can be prevented from becoming a full-blown crisis. In this case, Lochte could have said ‘My Mom is doing what moms do; she made it sound more serious than it was . . . I told my mom that story, not thinking it would ever go beyond her, but what really happened is this . . .’ Had Lochte done that, the story would have died right there.”
Lesson #5 - Convince Your Company Not To Lie In The First Place
“My most important advice for clients is – Don’t Lie!” says Austin. “Imagine how quickly the Rio issue would have been resolved if Lochte had said – to his Mom and everyone else – ‘I went out, got stupid drunk and did what guys do when they drink too much. I’m sorry for being dumb, for the damage I did at the gas station which I’ve offered to pay for, and for distracting anybody for even a second from how well the US is doing at the Olympics and from the wonderful people of Brazil who are showing everyone why Rio is one of the greatest cities on earth.’
“As the saying goes, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up that’ll kill you,” adds Austin. “In this case, the crime was peeing on the wall of a building and tearing down a poster. That would have cost him a couple hundred bucks and about a day’s worth of embarrassment. The cover-up cost him four sponsors, his reputation and – maybe – his career.”
In a perfect world, PR professionals would be the conscience of a corporation, counseling corporate leaders to own up to a company’s mistakes in an honest and candid way that will maintain consumer trust and brand reputation. But in the real world, too often PR pros are restricted to writing press releases explaining why leaked plutonium is actually good for you or arguing why years of internal memos documenting how an automakers’ tires exploded or vehicles erupted into fireballs should not have led the company to recall or repair the lethal cars.
But that reality does not – should not – get PR professionals off the hook from reviewing the PRSA Code of Ethics and advocating that their client or employer should do the right thing, helping foster a culture of honesty and guiding their employers toward telling the truth.
Lesson #6 - Act Like a Boy Scout And Prepare Your Brand For the Worst
Lochte was clearly unprepared for this crisis, as evidenced by the stumbling words he used as the debacle deepened, “I over-exaggerated.” Eventually crisis counselor, Matthew Hiltzik, who helped rebuild reputations for celebrities like Justin Bieber, was hired by Lochte – but that step came too late to put the Crisis Genie back in Lochte’s bottle.
“Considering that only about 20 percent of the world’s largest corporations have crisis plans beyond those required by law,” says Jim Lukaszewski, “there should be little surprise that individual professional athletes seem unprepared for adverse events they may cause or be caught up in. The only thing athletes prepare for is victory. Athletes, like executives, never believe that disaster is going to happen; therefore, preparing for such events seems to be a ridiculous waste of time. If a disaster should occur, they believe forgiveness will largely be automatic.”
What’s more, many corporations restrict their crisis preparations to deal only with the expected – airlines know they must be prepared for catastrophic aviation failures, while food companies recognize they must be prepared for issues of recalls, nutrition and food safety. But PR professionals can help clients prepare for a broader array of potential crisises – from employment litigation such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims to animal rights, environmental malfeasance, faith and values-related disputes and other issues. Although Monty Python was right in saying that “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” a savvy PR firm can help a company prepare for the least expected emergency.
Lesson #7 - After An Apology, Show Your Humanity
Steve Harvey charmingly ridiculed his famed mistake in crowning the wrong Miss Universe with a self-deprecating T-Mobile Super Bowl TV spot (“Folks – I have to apologize . . . Verizon got it wrong, yes - not me!”), which he described as “a nice little dig at myself.” Perhaps a small amount of redemption is due to Lochte for approving an August endorsement deal with Pine Bros cough drops, whose PR folks wrote: “Just as Pine Bros is forgiving to your throat, the company asks (the) public for a little forgiveness for an American swimming legend.”
Yet perhaps the only brand associated with Lochte whose reputation might come out of the crisis intact – and even stronger – is his former sponsor Speedo. The swimwear manufacturer, in announcing via Twitter that it was severing relations with the swimmer on August 22, promised to donate $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to the Save The Children charity for kids in Brazil. It was a brilliant move from the 85-year-old, UK-based company.
Had Lochte himself immediately apologized and made that type of donation as part of his contrition for the Rio hoax, we might still have the chance to see Lochte on the cover of a General Mills’ Wheaties box.
Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.
Topics: PR Perspectives