7 Ways to Avoid a Lance Armstrong-Like Credibility Crisis

Every organization makes mistakes. These mistakes often cause harm to others. Most of the time, they are unintentional, sometimes a wayward employee, associate or even a win-at-all-costs owner does something dishonest, immoral or unethical. Maintaining credibility and reputation in situations like these is difficult, but we can certainly learn the best way to handle them, or not to handle them.

Now that the (former) 7-Time Tour de France winner has finally (somewhat) admitted to doping (who saw that coming?), we offer 7 Lessons in Credibility from the Fall of Lance.

Lance Races in the Tour of California

Lance Races in the Tour of California

1. Time Causes Untreated Wounds to Fester, Not Heal

Was he hoping the accusations would just go away? They’d been calling Lance Armstrong a doper for over 10 years.   and every couple years, more damning evidence would surface, followed by denial after denial. The audacity to address and deny the allegations in a commercial for NIKE

Finally, in August of 2012, Mr. Armstrong stopped fighting the charges, while still denying any wrong doing.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ’Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now. I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999.”–Lance Armstrong. August 23, 2012.

 

And finally this week, the truth emerges. Most of it, anyway.

What good did a decade of denial do him? The Court of Public Opinion (see tip # 6) had convicted him a long time ago. Ten years is too long a time to learn that it’s not going to go away!

Lesson: When it’s a big deal, waiting it out is a terribly strategy.

2. Shooting the Messenger Can Backfire

Many of the accusations against Armstrong came from fellow cyclists, such as Floyd Landis. Lance did what many people do–fire back and try to question their accuser’s credibility.

““It’s our word against his word. I like our word. We like our credibility. Floyd lost his credibility a long time ago.”

–Lance Armstrong, May 2010.

Now Armstrong is being sued by Landis. I’m hope he still like his word against Landis’. I’m not sure a jury will.

As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports puts it:“Armstrong isn’t necessarily a bad guy for doping. He is a bad guy for the way he used his immense power, fame and fortune to attempt to ruin anyone who dared to speak the truth to his avalanche of lies”

Lesson: The coverup often hurts more people than the scandal. It can cost more too.

3. Truth and (Possibly Less) Consequences

The reason people keep secrets in the first place is probably because the consequences (real or imagined) of telling the truth seem more distasteful than keeping it under wraps.

In Lance’s case, he almost certainly would have lost his Tour de France titles after having admitted to doping. He would have lost some respect. But he also would have been able to move on with his life and win back much of that respect if he made himself part of the solution instead of dragging the world through a slow-motion train wreck of denial.

The consequences are real. You are correct to evaluate and try to minimize them, but you will not avoid them altogether. However, the longer the denial and cover up continue, the more damage is done and the less forgiving people are inclined to be.

Lesson: Consequences of lies and deceit only get worse with time.

4. You Really Can’t Keep a Secret

It’s very rare for one person to be the only one who knows something.

 

You probably won’t be the weak link that lets the secret slip, especially if you’ve decided the consequences of telling the truth are too great. But you’re not dealing with just you. Even small organizations have a myriad of people (present and future) who will uncover the company’s dirty secrets by being “read in” to the situation, stumbling on it by accident or searching for dirt.

Even people who pinky-swear to keep your secret are not always reliable. Not that they’ll fink on you on purpose, but people

  •  love having the scoop
  •  want to look cool to others
  • often forget what they’re not supposed to say

Lesson: You may be able to take a secret to your grave, but the odds are against it.

5.There Will Always be Someone Who Knows

You.

Guilt is a great way to drag your self-image down, which has repercussions in all areas of your life.

 

Most likely some of your employees or associates (even if they only have suspicions).

Keeping a secret is expensive. It requires time and brainpower (and sometimes money) to keep the dirty secret locked up. It distracts from more important pursuits.

Also, one is usually not enough, and the culture of secrecy can hamper your ongoing success (see tip #7).

Lesson: Even Secrets that never get out are harmful.

Lance Races in Australia

Lance Races in Australia

6. How to Win in the Court of Public Opinion

Imagine how Mr. Armstrong’s public perception would be today if in 2005 he had issued this statement:

In an era of cycling rampant with under-the-radar PED use, I was sadly no exception. I was motivated by my desire to win, which drove me to use unethical means to increase my performance. Many of my fellow cyclists of this era used these same tactics. I deeply regret the negative publicity my actions have brought upon the sport. I am cooperating fully with US Cycling, the USADA and Tour officials and am working with them to improve detection of these substances during testing. To those who looked to me as a role model, I hope you will emulate the passion, relentless training and fighting spirit that saw me through cancer and back to professional cycling.”
–Lance Armstrong’s Better Alter Ego, c.a. 2005 or earlier
 

Many people make the mistake of adopting a criminal court mindset. One that says “If you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, then I’m not guilty.” Such an attitude may keep you out of the slammer, but it won’t help your credibility very much in the court of public opinion.

I will be the first to agree the public wrongly convicts many people in their court. I will side wholeheartedly with those that say the media whips up a frenzy over small matters to boost ratings without regard to the harm their often-over-dramatized accusations may cause. But the truth is, another person’s decision to buy from you, associate with you, support your cause, or spread your message is almost always based on feelings and opinion over fact.

Winning in the court of public opinion requires one of two strategies.

  1. If you are truly, 100% innocent of the accusation, prove it beyond all doubt.
  2. If you even partially guilty, admit it in a way that acknowledges fault, sets up a mechanism to make it right and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Lesson: “You can’t prove it” serves a silver-platter confession to your prosecutors in the court of public opinion.

7. Moving Towards Lasting Success

You have to care, and you can’t fake it. If you don’t care about the harm, you’ve done to others intentional or unintentional, then you will one day be exposed as the fraud you are.

 

Assuming you do care, what can you do to make sure the situation that got you here doesn’t happen again? Is it a personal failure, a personnel failure, a procedure failure, the lack of a moral compass? (In Lance’s case, seemingly all of the above).

You can redeem your organization’s reputation and credibility. Second chances are just about that, though. Make the same mistake repeatedly and any amount of well-written PR-crafted apologies will exposed for the insincere spin they are. Fix the problem, be better for it, and move on toward success. You’ll come ahead in the end.

Lesson: Fix the problem. You can’t talk your way out of the same problem again and again.

Bottom Line

Your organization may not be on the world stage. You may not have the relentless media drumbeat of speculation, intrigue and frenzy.

 

You will have failures. You will make mistakes. You organizations will fall short of the standards your customers and constituents expect of you from time to time.

 

The problem isn’t being human and making mistakes. The problem isn’t even messing up and being a spiteful, selfish human from time to time (though that’s usually how the trouble starts).

 

The problem before you is how to deal with it when it mistakes do happen and people get hurt.

 

Caring enough to handle it right is a great place to start.

Photo Credits:
“Lance Armstrong Races in Australia” : Flickr User AngusKingston
“Lance at the Tour of California”: Flickr User ChuckThePhotographer