The Lance Armstrong Effect

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Much has been said about Lance Armstrong lately. Not much has been said by Lance Armstrong, himself.

It used to be easy to lay low, even if you were a celebrity. But, in the world of the real-time Web, mobile devices, Twitter, Facebook updates, YouTube videos and the like, what once was a brand’s most powerful tool to communicate directly with consumers, suddenly becomes its worst nightmare. Last Friday night, Armstrong took the stage at Livestrong’s 15th anniversary event. Many know Livestrong (Armstrong’s foundation to help battle cancer) for the 2004 launch of the Livestrong bracelet. Over eighty million bands have been sold and the Livestrong foundation has raised around $500 million to battle cancer. Lance, a cancer survivor, is currently battling for his professional life amidst a damaging report issued by the U.S. Anti-Doping agency regarding Armstrong’s alleged use of illegal substances in his victory of seven Tour de France’s (which were stripped from him on Monday). Major sponsors like Nike, Anheuser-Busch and Oakley have already dropped Armstrong, and he has already stepped down as Chairman of Livestrong as the charity wiggles its way to separate itself from Armstrong. At the anniversary celebration, he did not directly address the claims of the USADA and simply said that it has been a "difficult couple of weeks."  

The silence online is deafening.

Due to the rise of social media, consumers have an expectation that companies will not only respond to their needs, but become active participants in the global community. Because of high profile customer service issues (think Dell Hell or United Breaks Guitars), there is tremendous pressure on brands to not only act like human beings, but to be responsive and friendly in ways that customer service has never seen before. Upon a recent trip to Montreal, Lance tweeted out an invite for people to meet him for a run. Hundreds of people showed up (along with the local news crews). Suddenly, Armstrong’s Twitter feed is nothing but digital crickets and virtual tumbleweeds. He hasn’t sent out a message since October 12th. Legal experts will tell us that Armstrong must be careful. There are rumors of both civil and criminal lawsuits that could be filed against him, so anything he says can – and will – be used against him in a court of law, but what about the court of public opinion? Unfortunately, social media is not a one-way street. If you participate, you’re participating. You can’t just do it when things are good and ignore it when things are bad… and that can be a big challenge for some. It’s not a channel of convenience.

Be open. Be honest.

Armstrong’s current situation could well become the social media case study to end all social media case studies. How does a brand (and, make no mistake about it, Lance Armstrong is a big and powerful brand), straddle between the challenge of traditional corporate communications as a closed entity that is cautious of every consonant of content that they publish due to regulation, public/internal policies and more, balance with the creature of social media where there is an expectation of transparency, honesty and immediate feedback? We can’t expect Armstrong’s side of the story via Twitter, but we can imagine how difficult it must be for him to have the power to tell his story, directly to those who care, and instead, he is choosing silence or his lawyers have him on lock down.

Transparency tells the story.

As the world waits for Lance to come forward (and rest assured, there are a team of corporate communications experts who are currently working with Armstrong and his legal counsel on how to best do this), businesses can watch and learn plenty from the sudden social media blackout that is the Lance Armstrong brand. When things are good, social media was Armstrong’s best friend, but went things went south, it suddenly became the bane of his existence. It is both his silence mixed with a very vocal public (don’t believe me, just do a search on Twitter or Facebook for the term, "Lance Armstrong") that is defining his brand (whether he likes it or not). This digital experience is less about his contributions to fighting cancer (which have been incredible) or his innocence/guilt on a bike (which is now being formalized). Now, it’s about the digital relationships that Armstrong has been fostering. It’s a lesson that every business needs to look at when it comes to how they communicate and connect with consumers in these fascinating times. Suddenly, Armstrong is ignoring the millions of people that he so readily embraced before. These people feel his silence and see it as an admission of guilt and, in return, this story acts as a reminder that as good as social media is when you have something to promote, it must be a equally powerful ally when things go south.

People want to know his story from him. They no longer want to read it as a press release. Armstrong is going to have figure this one out… fast.  

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure.


  1. This whole saga raises many questions for me. In a blog post I wrote (blatant self-promotion) I was shocked at the number of defenders to Lance’s predicament. It seems that charitable affiliation provides you a teflon coating. Further, the whole PR machine around Lance has, in my opinion, worked to defend a cheater. And that’s equally as worrisome.

  2. Incredible contributions to fighting cancer? Sorry, but not even Livestrong itself is beyond reproach:
    So much of the money donated goes toward ‘awareness’. 1 in 3 people are affected by cancer in some significant way… how much more awareness do we need/can we get?
    (To be fair, the war on cancer can include some non-research/cure needs like services for cancer patients which will help them with their fight).

  3. This case more than anything is how he has dealt with people and his accusers. It’s not even about the doping anymore, it’s about if you like him (supporters of his mission and fans) or you don’t like him (USADA, France, ex-teammates, et al.). Yes, both parties are equally anticipatory of his next statement.

  4. Excellent points, Joel.
    Have you considered reaching out to him, to help him? Why not write a brief letter, FedEx it to him, and explain how you can help him, if hes interested.
    Especially as the social media expert you are.
    I’m not kidding.
    It would be worth it for him to pay you the $15,000 1-day consulting fee.
    Of course, I just made that price up, but it’s probably in the ballpark.
    Just a thought.
    People like Lance need people like you right now.

  5. Absolutely Lance and his brand are in a difficult position right now when it comes to communications and leveraging what helped build his brand in the good times. He’s not the first and won’t be the last.
    Isn’t trying to figure out how to be open an honest in this scenario avoiding the root cause? To find yourself (brand, individual, company) in this situation to begin with required a degree of epic dishonesty. To expect that to change is unrealistic now.
    The best solution to dealing with this is to be honest from the start. Not perfect, just honest. You can afford to make little mistakes and recover from them. Lance’s current situation is not the result of a little or even big mistake, but a series of calculated decisions about what was a priority for him and what he had convinced himself was necessary to reach the goals he had.
    Any attempt to become authentic now would to me seem like nothing more than a PR move, no less calculated than beating drug tests, and possibly even more slimy and pathetic. You cheated. You got caught. Deal with it.

  6. It will be interesting to see what he will post/tweet next, if anything. I agree the rumbling tumbleweeds on his social profile is damaging, though I do see the need for it as he ready’s his defense. Though I think he should say something soon, as his silence does nothing to help repair his name and brand.

  7. Sean, you’re right about the ounce of prevention thing, but what’s happened has happened, and now he needs to find a way to respond.
    As Joel said, his silence is a response, and it’s a bad choice.
    People mess up.
    People do stupid things (you do, I do, Joel does, we all do).
    People are forgiving of those who accept responsibility and acknowledge pain caused.
    It’s not too late.
    Lance could say this:
    “I’ve acted like a fool. I’ve been hiding the truth from the world in a desperate attempt to appear pure when in fact, I was cheating the whole time. I’ve hurt the people who looked to me as a leader and an example. I’ve hurt the people who sponsored me, and stood beside me all these years, and I’ve hurt the people that I love by living as a fraud for the last 7 years.
    I accept responsibility for all of it. I was selfish. It’s my fault, and I am to blame.
    I’m hoping to get some help to prevent this pattern from recurring in my life, and am determined to move forward as a new man. No more lies. No more false stories. No more pretending to be what I’m not.
    I’m truly sorry if I hurt you.
    I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me one day.”
    Even that (which I came up with in 4 minutes) would be 1000 times better than the silence, and would do wonders in repairing his credibility and reputation.

  8. Lance doesn’t need me. He has a team. He’s quiet because they need to figure out if civil and criminal litigation is around the corner… and it does look like it is.
    The crux of my blog post was about the intersection between the public/social media Lance and the corporate/legal Lance… not what he should do, but simple how these two worlds are now colliding.

  9. Interesting.
    From where I’m standing, his team is advising him to make all the wrong decisions. He has a team, yes. But his team is making it worse for him.
    He needs a new team.
    It’s easy to crouch in the bushes and say “My lawyers tell me I can’t respond”, when in fact, all you need to do is acknowledge what’s already known and exposed as truth.
    If you’re counting on your lawyers to help you weave more lies to conceal and obscure the truth, then you deserve 10 times worse than what’s already coming your way, and zero sympathy from the world around you.
    If you’re looking to heal, accept responsibility, and be a different man, than lawyers need not stand in your way.
    I get what you’re saying, Mitch. But I think you downplay the help that someone like you (or me, or anyone else that sees this) could provide.
    And his immediate need for it.
    Something to chew on.

  10. (Mitch – I keep referring to you as both “Mitch” and “Joel”, my apologies for that. I know what your name is, and I’m a fan.
    I’ll stick with only one of those names from here on out.)

  11. Kevin – those are all honorable and just actions to be taken. However, when they are likely constructed by a PR machine and lawyers instead of sincerity and humility, I don’t see them as more than rubbing the dogs nose in the mess he made.
    Say something about why you cannot speak to the questions being asked, say nothing about it – meaningless to me right now. Act and conduct yourself in a manner that over time will cause others to speak about you in a positive way instead of self promoting the shame you allegedly feel to try and salvage your image.
    A tweet, email or PR release should have little to no relevance right now in repairing his credibility or reputation. Shame on us for accepting thinking an apology is worth anything here.

  12. Interesting, Sean.
    Apologies are always acceptable if they reflect genuine contrition.
    We are a forgiving species, when we sense authenticity.
    Don’t hide behind winsome words or carefully engineered legalese. We’ll be able to tell if it’s real or not.
    I don’t disagree that he needs to be a different man, and prove his remorse over time. But in the meantime, he has to put himself in front of the firing squad.
    Think of how amazing it would be if he held a press conference, and let people rip him to shreds on national tv? That would show genuine remorse. Invite questions, and address them all.
    If he is truly sorry, he can start fixing it quick. And it will work for most of us.
    Sure, some are deeply resentful, and they’ll need more time before they even want to see his face in the public spotlight. But most are ready and all ears right now.

  13. I agree with Stephen, it’d certainly be interesting to see how Armstrong manages to get himself out of this, or even if it’s possible for him to unscarred. It’s been a while now and his Twitter has certainly become more active, but whether he’s all the way out the other side is debatable. In any case, complete silence probably isn’t the best tactic, but at least it completely rules out the potential to cause any more considerable damage (although it may still cause some degree).
    Keeping quiet may be a good legal defence, but in the long term it could be far more crippling to reputation with fans and followers. It would be better to tactfully approach social media and still remain active, whilst staying neutral about any controversy.

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