Image Patrol: Manti vs. Lance: One Can Plead Youth, the Other Should Know Better

Anyone who aspires to sports star status should be required to successfully complete a course in public relations prior to signing any contract.
Anyone who has any knowledge of PR knows that the bigger the star the bigger the target. So it was hardly surprising that Notre Dame linebacker, Heisman Trophy candidate and all-around football darling Manti Te’o would eventually attract some negative publicity. The fact that it was self-inflicted should not come as a surprise. He’s barely old enough to drink, never mind withstand the onslaught of media attention that comes with a run for the Heisman and a chance to win the national championship with a win against top-ranked Alabama.

Add to that a juicy story about a girlfriend who died tragically, but in fact never lived at all, and you have every PR crisis counselor’s fantasy client. But whoever is coaching Te’o, the college football star has managed to navigate the minefield pretty well. His biggest mistake seems to have been waiting for to break the story instead of coming clean in advance of the publication. But his most recent, honest confession to Katie Couric and the fact that there is no tangible proof that he somehow was more deeply involved in the hoax, definitely helped diffuse the disaster. Lucky for him that more heat is being applied to alleged hoax scammer Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who possibly impersonated Te’o’s fake girlfriend Lenny Kekua with a falsetto voice.

It’s tough to make this stuff up. Regardless, all Te’o needs now is a solid NFL combine and successful interviews with interested NFL teams. If he’s a high pick in the NFL draft and performs well next season, the scandal will all but be forgotten.

On the other hand, one expects more of grown men, especially ones with the stature and experience of Lance Armstrong.
While many simply shrugged and claimed they knew it all along, there were still numerous fans who were somehow stunned when he fessed up to Oprah Winfrey.

It was to many a desperate attempt to use, at the end, the one PR tactic that might have saved him in the beginning: abject mortification. Study after study has shown that when a celebrity or a corporation apologizes and takes full responsibility for his/her/its actions, the chances that the public will forgive the entity go up dramatically. 

But Lance was far too jacked up on ego-enhancing drugs to do anything but deny the charges and denigrate his accusers—two strategies that research has also shown almost always fail. As allegations from former teammates and others that Armstrong cheated poured in, the cyclist dug himself a deeper hole, one that just might be impossible to climb out of.

Armstrong’s motivation to try to put the doping scandal behind him was obvious. His cycling career is done. The Livestrong cancer charity he founded is struggling. Then there is his family: During the Oprah interview, the only time his emotions showed through was when he talked about telling his kids that they shouldn’t defend him anymore. 

Yet with that interview, Armstrong may face a life of constant litigation as the people he hurt seek restitution and brands that supported him sue for their money back. 

The ultimate irony is that Armstrong still has a place in the history books that he so coveted, though it won’t be for his performance on a bicycle, but as the quintessential case study of how to not to do reputation management.

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