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. [For more Image Patrol articles, visit the PR News Subscriber Resource Center (] CONTACT: Katie Paine is chief marketing officer of News Group and chairman/founder of Salience/KDPaine & Partners She can be reached at   Manti Te'O Criteria Grade Comments Advice Extent of coverage F You didn’t need to be a football fan to hear this story. It had far too many juicy elements not to be picked up by the worldwide media. Certain crises will go viral no matter what your audience. Anything involving sex is pretty much guaranteed to jump the fence from your specific target media into the mainstream. Effectiveness of spokesperson B Given his age, and the pressure he was under, Manti Te’o’s handling of the crisis was as good as we can expect from someone who is barely eligible to drink. The key element in any successful crisis is credibility. The good news when dealing with a very young celebrity is that he or she haven’t lived long enough to build up too much of a history. The bad news is that you are relying on the judgment of a young spokesperson to say the right thing. Communication of key messages B+ Almost every story portrayed Te’o as both a great player and a nice, if gullible, young man. There are far worse reputations to have than to be seen as young, ignorant and gullible. Management of negative messages B Te’o could have done a better job of managing the negative messages had he not waited until after his network TV appearance to admit his lie. Timing is everything, and what may seem to be insignificant details of timing can make or break your credibility. Impact on fans A Fans were fascinated by the bizarre nature of the story, but our hunch is that not a single Notre Dame fan changed his or her allegiance as a result. When evaluating the potential impact of the truth, make sure you keep in mind your target audience. If the target audience doesn’t care, perhaps you shouldn’t either. OVERALL SCORE B The ultimate measure of success—i.e. how soon the crisis dissipates—indicates that this was not a big deal to most fans. Total honesty is always the best policy and the best insurance against reputation damage. Lance Armstrong Criteria Grade Comments Advice Extent of coverage F Lance was his own worst enemy. His earlier denials and accusations against the investigators and reporters covering the scandal only prolonged the crisis and further damaged relationships. Among some misguided PR professionals and lawyers, there is a belief that denying an accusation vociferously makes you more credible. It does not. Effectiveness of spokespeople F In the world of Lance Armstrong, there was always only one spokesperson, and when that person was found to be of dubious veracity there was no one else to trust. Whenever possible, in any crisis make sure that you have numerous credible spokespeople so that when you do have answers, or do want to tell the truth, there will be someone left to believe. Communication of key messages D In listening to his confession, it was hard to say what the message really was. There was some emotion and the cancer survival message was a good one, but it got lost in translation. If you are going to use abject mortification as a way to diffuse a crisis, you will certainly get everyone’s attention. But you need to be clear about your messages or else they will get lost in drama of the confessional moment. Management of negative messages F The inevitable negative message was that this confession was all about boosting Oprah’s ratings and rescuing Lance’s reputation in the racing world. Most of the coverage included some speculation along those lines. No matter how carefully you coach your spokespeople through a crisis, there will be negative messages. Make sure you are prepared for them and have a credible source to either explain or deny them. Impact on fans and sponsors C Amazingly there were still fans, particularly among cancer survivors, who listened to the interview and were ready to forgive him. This is a tribute to their loyalty to a cause rather than Armstrong’s loyalty to his fan base. In any crisis it is, of course, important to keep one’s focus on the bottom line—that stakeholder group that controls your income. You probably won’t have time to worry about any other group, so pay attention the one that really matters. OVERALL SCORE D Lance’s performance on Oprah was that of a great actor, not a great human being. Too little too late never works well in a crisis.

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