As a media trainer and a former journalist, I tell my clients never to lie to reporters, especially in a crisis. Once the truth comes out—and it usually does—you lose any credibility you may have had and become a completely unreliable source in the future.
Which is why I’m torn thinking about the recent developments in Lance Armstrong’s current battle against doping charges. The Washington Post reports the seven-time Tour de France winner is being accused by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) of a “massive doping conspiracy” from 1998-2007 witnessed by more than 10 cyclists.
Armstrong released a strong statement on his website yesterday denying the allegations, saying:
“I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one. That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence.”
This is not the first time Armstrong has faced these charges. The US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles investigated Armstrong for two years before terminating its inquiry in February without charging him. In that case, two of his former teammates testified in public that Armstrong was doping.
Which gets us to the big question: Assuming, for the sake of argument, Armstrong did dope, what should he do? Should he come clean and put this whole mess to rest, relinquish his seven Tour de France titles and jeopardize his fundraising prowess for his Livestrong Foundation? Or, should he continue to deny the allegations and defend himself in the court of public opinion?
Complicating the matter, a confession would not send Armstrong to jail. The USADA cannot prosecute him criminally; it can only strip him of his titles and prevent him from competing in future events. So this really is solely a matter of Armstrong’s reputation.
Past athletes who have admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs have not fared well. Take Mark McGwire, for example, who in 2005 pleaded “no comment” when asked during a Congressional hearing whether he had ever taken steroids. The public convicted him of being a cheat, and his reputation has never recovered. He finally confessed the obvious in 2010, and has been on the outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame looking in ever since.
Former Olympic champion Marion Jones faced a similar fate when she confessed to taking performance-enhancing drugs and lying about them to a grand jury. She was stripped of her five Olympic medals and the promising career and sports endorsements she once had.
Our firm wouldn’t represent a client that we knew was lying. But assuming that Armstrong is guilty, is his best PR move to deny and defend? Is this an exception to the “never lie” rule?
UPDATE: June 29, 2012: According to one of Lance Armstrong’s lawyers, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency voted today to officially charge Armstrong with doping and being part of a doping conspiracy.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.