Losing the agenda

Lance Armstrong Avoriaz

Today sees the Dauphiné head to Les Gets and a large section of today’s stage borrows the same roads as last year’s eighth stage of the Tour de France that finished in Avoriaz, won by Andy Schleck.

On Sunday 11 July 2010 the bunch was speeding to the first proper climb of the race, the Col de Ramaz and on a downhill section during the approach there was a roundabout, a small junction to control the traffic to a nearby supermarket and the kind of thing you find all over France. But it was on a fast piece of road and the passage of traffic arriving fast at the roundabout and braking hard had rippled the tarmac a touch, itself softened by the summer heat. Most riders got through but the skittish surface claimed one victim: Lance Armstrong. Up until then everything was going to plan, Armstrong had finished second in the Tour de Suisse and took fourth in the Tour’s prologue.

But everything went wrong thanks to this roundabout. It took a long time to get going and once he was on his way Armstrong was in the red, chasing with team mates to the start of the Ramaz. Team Sky were driving the pace ahead and Armstrong never got back on, especially since Astana kept the pace high to Les Gets and he eventually trundled up the finish line in Avoriaz, over 11 minutes down.

Yet if a roundabout ruined Lance Armstrong’s hopes last year, it was a random and freak event and his team tried their best to get him back in the race. Fast forward to 2011 and I can’t help but wonder if his troubles today are not being compounded by the result of bad decisions and poor advice.

These days, for a guy who made a career out of riding uphill very fast, Lance Armstrong is sliding downhill. Once upon a time we were told he weighed his food with precision and we learned – thanks to Nike commercials – that rain and cloud couldn’t stop him from training in the high mountains. His story reached well beyond the bubble of pro cycling, at first he became an international sports star, a celebrity and an inspiration. At one point he could do no wrong.

Now we are witnessing a downfall in public, a public image car crash and it’s quite ugly. Worse, I can’t help feel he’s being very badly advised.

Digging deep
When fresh allegations and revelations hit the media, the response seems to be to hire more lawyers. This is the equivalent of renting an excavator after you’ve fallen down a hole.  Armstrong’s problems are not legal. Yes, he is certainly at the centre of an investigation by the US authorities and needs careful advice but a lot of the work done by the attorneys seems to involve his attorneys rebutting allegations and demanding retractions. This is public and confrontational, not law-related.

These days Armstrong seems buffeted by events. Despite employing top lawyers and apparently the best spin doctor in the Western World, his camp seems to have totally lost control of the agenda and struggles to put out a coherent message.

From the Col de Ramaz to Main Street
The US media is awash with stories that are a variation of “I used to support him, now I’m not sure”. The lame Facts4Lance website has been taken down but only after it was aired for enough time to make Armstrong’s entourage look stupid. Let’s put Armstrong aside for a moment, he’s actually proven to be a savvy internet user whether it’s his twitter account or making millions from selling Livestrong.com to Demand Media. No, someone else must have cooked up the “facts” website ploy and it was a howler as it focussed his defence on trying to undermine others rather than putting out positive message.

What’s the message?
Now let’s not reheat the old did-he-or-didn’t-he-dope debate too much, I’m more interested in how the case is being handled. But if he wants to claim he rode clean all his life, my advice would be that he’s got to get out there and say it, in fact he’s got to shout it. Scream it from the rooftops Lance! Tour the TV studios, record the radio shows, appear in print. But this isn’t happening. In the vacuum he’s letting the likes of Hamilton have their say and it’s fashionable for many opinion pieces in the mainstream media to start asking aloud if he did dope. Instead we get a weasel-worded “I never tested positive” line that is noticeably different from a denial, as it hints “they never caught me” more than the plain old “I’ve never resorted to the use of banned substances“.

Reclaiming the message
By contrast, if there’s going to be a confession then it needs to come quickly. Being bounced and hounded into an admission never looks good, it will appear as if he’s got a problem with the truth and can’t talk straight. For a charity and media personality this can be career-ending stuff. For many cycling insiders who suspect he might have doped, any confession today could seem very late in the day; but for the wider public in the US, perhaps it would appear timely, especially if couched in the terms that he didn’t want to let fans down, that riding the Tour was never easy and so on.

Two courtrooms at once
But perhaps the ongoing investigation is the real agenda setting event. Armstrong might be caught between a legal defence where authorities struggle to prove the use of doping products and the “court of public opinion” where circumstantial evidence piles up by the day. You end up pulled in two directions, the need to avoid any admission in order to ward off the authorities but millions in public are left either scratching their head, or worse, pointing their fingers.

You can crash out of a race by accident thanks to a bad road surface. But these days it seems hotshot attorneys and public relations gurus are pacing Lance Armstrong straight into a brick wall. But this could be for legal reasons, the dissonance between legal pleadings and public expectations.

Either way, a rider once famed for mastering the media seems to be floundering, unable to get a clear message out to his supporters. It is painful to watch and I suspect everyone involved in Armstrong’s defence are struggling for way out.

22 thoughts on “Losing the agenda”

  1. Very interesting post, like your angle of view. In relation to all this commotion surrounding Armstrong, I find it strange that Chris Carmichael has been so quiet. He certainly has an opinion that I for one, would like to hear. Don’t know if he’s been asked or if he like Armstrong like the standard answer you are mentioning. Perhaps it is difficult for him, having his coaching business?

    The silence does not make any allegations go away…

  2. I once attended a lecture on press related crisis management, with a now current (but still highly intellegent) GM of a pro cycling team, and his wise words whenever shit hits the can where: maximum disclosure – minimum delay. Guess it might be to late for mr. A and sneaky fucker B.

  3. Interesting, but maybe you are being too kind to say it’s just bad advice. Armstrong’s famously been a stubborn guy and liked to reduce things to simple choices in black and white. Denial is easy compared to confronting wrong decisions. Maybe he’s just holding out? Maybe his advisors are stuck with this?

  4. Pedaling the road: yes, the investigation involves and it’s important to remember it’s not an investigation into Armstrong. But I wanted to look at the big name involved and what’s involved.

    El Gato: it gets later every day, obviously but there are more and more questions and the LA public relations gurus aren’t very forthcoming.

    EG: that’s possible, that his experts are paid to stick to a script and deliver this, against their advice. But if that was so, why employ all these people? Surely the likes of Fabiani are all about trying “position” Armstrong. Either way, it’s not working very well.

  5. At this stage isn’t Armstrong stuck. He can’t shout about being innocent from the rooftops because he knows the game is up…. and that at one point those late public denials will come out to bite him — more so even then his earlier ones.
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here: there are two narratives here, a legal one and a public relations one (in the true sense of the term). Before confessing Lance will have to make a deal with the prosecutors… pretty unlikely….

  6. The only proof we need to realize that the accusations are true, is the fact that Lance hasn’t sued anyone for slander. With millions of dollars at risk, a foundation, and an image that will be affected by the outcome, why hasn’t Lance sued anyone for slander? Why? Because truth is in fact a defense and no-one has lied, not Franky, Tyler, Floyd, or George.

  7. Here’s the point I think that’s missing in all this.
    In addition to the bad advise and slippery “never tested positive” tap-dance, the main response to all accusers has been outright character assassination. That’s it. No reasoned response, no ideas, just flat out character assassination.
    It’s hard not to view him as rather desperate when all he can say is, “well you lied that one time, so you’ll never tell the truth again. An you’re just jealous.”
    It’s pitiful to watch, frustrating to hear and a terrible way to conduct yourself.

  8. Pedaling: Interesting you mention Carmichael, especially considering he (along with Rene Wenzel) doped US National Team juniors without their knowledge in the early 90s. USAC was sued several years later by one of those juniors and they settled out of court for a large sum of money — which, to my understanding, included a gag order.

    So Carmichael has A LOT to lose by speaking out publicly for the reason I mention above — in addition to the fact that, like Livestrong, the success of Carmichael’s coaching business is largely dependent on the Armstrong myth.

  9. AH- Carmichael settled out of court with two guys, Greg Strock and Erik Kaiter. Wenzel fought the case, lost everything, and seems to be wondering the world trying to pick up the random coaching gig here and there.

  10. Lance Armstrong conducted his professional cycling career with ruthless efficiency.
    He learn’t fast and if mistakes were made, he corrected them, and carried on, whatever they were.

    It strikes me that his character (as far as I understand) is unlikely to relinquish control of his affairs, whether business or personal.
    He may delegate, or even defer to some paid specialists/experts, but ultimate control, I believe would remain with him.
    Whether he is viewed as a tainted hero, superman by others, the buck stops with Lance.

  11. The issue is so divisive in the cycling community, that I decided to not publish another post on it until he’s indicted or not and have also said, “Take the Deal Lance.” Do it for the good of the community, sport, industry, people that believe and that’s even if he passes the 501st test. The public maneuvering is indicative of the negotiations going on and I think the bombastic press releases from the attorneys were a form of public intimidation to anyone else planning on speaking out. It’s also very likely that they’ve polled and seen it’s not going good for Lance, in the court of public opinion — his arrogance does not help, placing articles like that Mellow Johnny’s Air piece in the news cycle aligns him with Wall Street Bankers and a “he got away with something ” tone. If he’s indicted, they’ll hire firms that out on mock trails and I really hope he does NOT Barry Bond or Marion Jones.

    I’m also waiting for the CEO of a bike-related company to come forward and say, “we paid for this and I’m sorry.” To man up and own this systemic corruption. Talk to anyone in the industry off the record, and they want this era to end ASAP also wish he never came back.

  12. It is the character assassinations of guys who did not have the financial or legal means to deal with them, and Armstrong’s lack of any remorse (he seems to me to have many psychopathic tendencies) that is why I openly root for him to be caught and prosecuted.

    He ruined people to protect his secrets.

  13. If Armstrong, in the interests of PR, admits now that he doped, he sinks his defense of the ongoing federal investigation. An aggressive prosecutor might add perjury charges relating to his prior civil testimony to the theory that he was sponsored by federal dollars on false pretenses. Once the feds are after you, it severly limits your options.

  14. @Nate: It would also explain his non-denial, denials. His lawyers have probably advised him to steer clear of any statements which may put him potentially in trouble with the grand jury investigation. His current retort of “‘most tested athlete….’ and ‘tested 500 times'” seems very calculated. In addition, his assassination of Hamilton and others also does not put him in legal jeopardy.

  15. I think you’ve assessed the defence strategy very well. The ‘half denials’ are trying to balance today’s PR battle with the legal battles to come.

    Addressing the possibility of a confession, I don’t think LA views it as being a real choice for him in his current position. The man does not give in, he’s not a quitter. Confessing now could lead to a punishment that he might have otherwise escaped.

    Meanwhile, the investigation rolls forward at its own pace. There are surely more riders and soigneurs who have either already told what they know (information yet to leak out into the public gaze) or will do so in the future. As the case progresses and we learn more, the pressure slowly builds and LA looks more and more isolated, more desperate and more guilty.

  16. @JT:

    Not to mention as well that he is still making money as this case continues to slowly plod along. From his standpoint, even if he is convicted, as long as he can stash away as much capital along the way, he only has to likely serve as limited sentence if convicted, and then he walks away with a bundle of cash.

    Sadly – the punishment which would really suit this whole situation (i.e. – take away his life savings), is not going to happen, which only teaches the lesson that even if you get caught, as long as you rack up enough points along the way, life will still end up fairly comfortable in your golden years.

  17. Great article and lots of good commentary. Armstrong’s PR strategy seems to be to stick to the old game plan that’s worked in the past. That is everyone is a liar, jealous or just plain hates Armstrong and the man himself is too busy saving the world from cancer to care. It’s worked all along for him and I think he’s counting on the fact that he’s not just another athlete whose taken PED’s but rather is an icon that’s transcended sport. In his mind the general public doesn’t care and he’ll continue to stay on the “it’s not about the bike” message. Keep tweeting about what great things Livestrong is doing and let the lawyers deal with the noise in the background.

    I agree the facts4lance.com site was a total PR disaster. It looked like something a 7th grader put together in an afternoon. Totally out of character for a man who uses the internet to fuel his fortune. One has to wonder how stupid his PR people can be or was this all LA himself going against the advice of his advisors? Taking it down was a good idea just way too late as the damage is done.

    Only problem with his PR strategy is what dirt the Feds have uncovered and just how spectacular the fall could be once its made public. It would appear he’s drank a little too much of his own kool-aid and will continue to fiddle while Rome burns around him. That would explain all the rumours about his legal team getting ready to bail.

  18. There’s a very good book called “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence” which highlights something that’s probably applicable in large part to Mr. A. Essentially, the character traits that attract some people to become military officers and then cause them to rise very quickly and become leaders of large groups of soldiers, are the very same traits that, when placed in a particular situation and viewed through the lens of a long career spent confirming certain behaviours, lead to the inability to comprehend the battlefield in front of them and adapt in order to achieve victory or even an acceptable loss.
    LA has spent his career behaving a certain way and being rewarded for it. The battlefield has changed underneath him and his fundamental understanding of the way the battle is taking place is no longer accurate – and he can’t comprehend that those two things have happened, so he keeps trying to do what he’s always done, ultimately leading to his demise.

  19. In the US, when the Feds are after you, nobody has the capability to mount an adequate PR effort. Absolutely nobody can keep the ‘story’ controlled, regardless of guilt or innocence. Add to that the difficulties you mention of mounting a PR effort, all while the best legal advice is to keep your mouth shut in case you’re indicted and you begin to see the difficulty.

    Also notice that the Feds have no hang-ups about leaking information and there’s no way to know how much of it is true, how much false and how much true enough to stand up in court. They’re leaking in order to compel more admissions to the GJ as they work their way up the food chain of witnesses.

    I think LA is correct to limit his tweets to his charity work and things of that nature. However, he should fire whoever had the idea for factsforlance.com.

  20. Armstrong was super impressive in the prologue in last years Tour a sign he was in fantastic shape. Then over a week later he started to get dropped early on climbs. He and his team were under some serious scrutiny once they arrived in France and I wonder how that might have had an effect on daily ‘operations’ and ‘support’ personnel as the pressure mounted? Yes he crashed, but not because of sticky tarmac, he got sandwiched in coming out of a roundabout and he did get back on, quite easily in fact. Passing through a roundabout at speed can take 3 to 5 seconds and you have to remain concentrated from entering to exiting particularly as riders get up to accelerate again. You have to hold your nerve yet be relaxed. But he fell several times so I wonder just how calm his nerves during the race and how that effected his reaction speed. He seemed to lack his usual concentration and his magical consistency. Once final thing; I hope public and industry heads do not get too carried away with condemning the doped and focus on the potentially ‘to be doped’. Where there is a will, there is a way. The way is always there but it’s the will we need to have an influence on, that’s our responsibility if we care that much.

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