Lance Armstrong quietly wins his own PR Tour

Sports Illustrated, in its cover story naming Lance Armstrong Athlete of they Year some time back asked Armstrong’s young son what the famous cyclist did for a living. The lad nailed it: “He makes them pay.

For anyone who’s tried to ride up a mountain under their own pedal power, much less race up the legendary climbs of the Tour de France, the refrain resonates.

In winning an unprecedented seven Tours, Armstrong made them pay. That he did so after emerging from a testicular and brain cancer death sentence made his story remarkable, his legend widely told and his good works through the yellow-bracelet-selling  Livestrong foundation respected and rewarding.

But did Armstrong “make them pay” by boosting his own O2 capacity and lactic acid disposal system with performance-enhancing drugs? Is he simply a smarter Barry Bonds?

Much of the media were certain they knew. And, bolstered by a federal grand jury investigation, many writers and broadcasters showed conclusively why Armstrong was going to jail as a cheat and a fraud.

Only whispered last week, as Gil Rudawsky wrote for PRDaily’s web site, was news the federal investigation ended. No indictment. No arrest. No humiliation. And no apologies from the media. Since the news broke late last Friday, there was only limited coverage.

As Rudawsky, a former reporter, wrote:

“Armstrong’s PR team played the case artfully over the last two years. It didn’t engage in the back-and-forth drama engulfing the world-famous cyclist. Instead, it asserted his innocence and pointed to a host of other failed investigations. The truth, or lack of provable evidence, came out in the legal case, but that won’t make big headlines.

“At least one media outlet, The Washington Post, notes the irony and turned the spotlight inward:

“While something less than a complete exoneration of Armstrong, the muted end of the investigation raises questions about the media: Did they go too far in painting a picture of misfeasance and illegal behavior by the seven-time Tour de France winner? And did they fail to ask some tough questions about the government’s case?”

“Armstrong’s team always pointed to the facts, and even responded to a frontal assault by ’60 Minutes’ with a single tweet and created a response website that laid out the facts and included backup countering the stream of innuendo.

Robert Luskin, one of Armstrong’s attorneys, told The Washington Post that the news media lapped up the story because they felt it was too good not to be true.”

” ‘They become seduced by their sources and take too much at face value,’ he said. ‘No one stops and says, ‘That doesn’t sound right to me.’ ”

That’s a complete lesson for reporters, editors and PR people.

[Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor with 20 years of communications experience. He heads up the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at]


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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