Live strong and stick to the messageOctober 3, 2012
Just over a month ago, on Aug. 23, 2012, Lance Armstrong capitulated. He announced that he would no longer fight the USADA’s charges that he had been doping and taking steroids during his peak riding days. At first, it was shocking, and the day of the announcement, conventional wisdom was that Lance’s reputation was shot, his Livestrong organization was facing demise, and that he would be remembered in disgrace.
But as the story unfolded over the next few days, sentiment changed. All over the Internet and all throughout the news media, people rallied to Lance’s defense. The tide turned. And the numbers bear this out. Thirty days later, Lance’s online sentiment as measured by Nielsen BuzzMetrics is even higher than it was before the announcement.
In fact, Lance’s sentiment was slightly negative before the announcement, meaning that by and large most of the articles written about him or mentions of him online were in a negative context. Today, his online sentiment is overwhelmingly positive — a remarkable turnaround. Livestrong’s sentiment has also improved by more than 150 percent since before the announcement.
By contrast, perception as measured by online sentiment of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — negative even before the announcement — has plummeted even further. Clearly, Travis Tygart has some reputation management work to be done.
How did Lance navigate through one of the most challenging PR mazes of his career? By sticking to the message, which in essence was, “I’m innocent; I’m the most tested athlete in all of sports; I’ve never failed a single blood test; the allegations are based on testimony of people who are jealous, and who are motivated to see me knocked down a peg.”
This has been his message since the beginning. Every interview, every news report, every reference to Lance included this theme, and in turn, it became gospel. That Lance was able to put the USADA investigation behind him in dramatic fashion and come out the other side unscathed — and in fact with an improved reputation — is a clear demonstration of the importance of staying on point and on message, always.
A few years ago I was working with a newly minted CEO of a company in turnaround mode. The CEO had a clear plan for creating shareholder value, and we worked with him to develop core messages that outlined his five-point plan for executing the turnaround.
A natural at PR, the CEO worked the message like a charm. He was Lance-like. Every interview. Every analyst and shareholder meeting. Every internal communication with company employees. The same five points. It was like Groundhog Day, and at times it drove his communications team crazy. No matter what the question, this CEO doggedly worked the answer back to his five-point plan and the hidden value within the company that it would extract.
By being persistent and staying on point, the five-point plan likewise became gospel both inside and outside the company. And it worked. The five-point plan was executed step-by-step, resulting in a significant return for investors who bought into the story. Today the company has put turnaround mode in the rear view mirror and is in execution mode, and the stock has risen nearly 40 percent during the CEO’s tenure.
In my experience, the best communicators have this skill set down to a science. Those who deviate from core messaging are the ones who often get themselves in trouble with the media by saying things they didn’t want to say.
A relatively recent example is Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, who in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil spill famously remarked with the cameras rolling, “I’d like my life back.” Shortly after that, he did indeed get his life back as he was relieved of his duties as CEO.
In short, solid core messaging is the best communications defense when times are bad, and a powerful offense when times are good. So if your organization doesn’t have one, now’s the time to start cultivating it.