An Olympic Sized Scandal: PR Lessons Learned

August 26, 2016

They say a party isn’t a party without a good old fashioned scandal and, in that sense, the 2016 Summer Olympics didn’t disappoint. There was Gabby Douglas who was skewered for not putting her hand to heart during the national anthem. Hope Solo who called the Swedish women’s soccer team ‘cowards’ after a disappointing loss. And then of course there was the green water in the diving pool… But no other scandal rocked the 2016 summer games like the full blown international incident dubbed #LochteGate. Whether it’s just a case of boys-will-be-boys or it leaves a permanent scar on the U.S. Olympics, there’s no denying there were some clear PR winners and losers.

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If for some reason you missed the whole thing, allow me to briefly recap. Ryan Lochte is a U.S. Olympic champion swimmer who has 12 Olympic medals, including six gold, three silver and three bronze. He is second in line behind Michael Phelps for the Olympic medal count in swimming. Like Phelps, he has had his share of foibles, including a failed reality TV show called, “What Would Ryan Do.” In a classic case of life imitating art, the events of the 2016 Summer games unfolded just like bad reality TV show, with Ryan Lochte in the starring role. Ryan’s real-life drama unfolded when he told NBC reporter Billy Bush he had been robbed at gunpoint the night before. After an official investigation, it came to light that Lochte had concocted the story as a cover up for vandalizing a gas station in a post-party drunken stupor.

Of course the biggest loser in all of this is Ryan Lochte himself. Aside from damaging his reputation, he has lost four sponsors including his $50,000 endorsement from Speedo. But there were so many PR lessons in this drama that I couldn’t resist sharing some dos and don’ts.

 

Don’t make a long-winded apology

Once the damage was done, was there anything Lochte could have done to redeem himself? Yes. A more direct and timely public apology would have served him better and could have minimized collateral damage. His statement, published in this CBS Sports story, is three paragraphs long! And it includes a full paragraph detailing the incident from Ryan’s perspective. This long-winded explanation sounds more like an excuse than an apology and definitely gives reporters more fodder for additional stories and speculation. Rather than dousing the flame, Lochte added fuel to the fire.

 

Do come prepared or don’t bother showing up

Notwithstanding his freshly colored hair, Lochte appeared to be completely unprepared for his post-scandal interview with Matt Lauer. Instead of sticking to a few simple talking points and acknowledging accountability, he got caught recounting the evening’s escapades in yet another version of the story.

“Whether you call it a robbery or whether you call it extortion or just paying for the damages, don’t know. All we know is that there was a gun pointed in our direction and were demanded to give money.”

This just gave Matt Lauer more ammunition for the hard questions to come where he accused Lochte of changing his story from one about “the mean streets or Rio” to a negotiated settlement to cover up dumb behavior. Later in the week, that interview was repurposed by none other than Steven Colbert in this incredible parody of the situation on The Late Show.

Ryan should really have taken his own advice and “laid low” rather than showing up for this interview that left two co-anchors in tears.

 

Don’t make excuses

In his original interview with Lauer, Lochte only partially admitted culpability saying,

“I over-exaggerated that story and if I had never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The people of Rio…the authorities—they put on a great games. My immature intoxicated behavior tarnished that a little.”

His use of the term “over-exaggerated” and the focus on his intoxicated state, as well as his use of the term “a little” to qualify his statement are obvious bids to minimize his guilt. A better approach would have been to lead with a direct apology and acknowledge the impact that his actions had made.

 

Do take action and take a stand

If Ryan Lochte is the big loser in all of this, the winner from a PR perspective is clearly Speedo, one of Ryan’s top sponsors. Once the scandal hit, Speedo came out almost immediately with a brief and pointed statement and also took decisive action.

While we have enjoyed a winning relationship with Ryan for over a decade and he has been an important member of the Speedo team, we cannot condone behavior that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for. We appreciate his many achievements and hope he moves forward and learns from this experience.

Rather than avoiding a direct condemnation of Lochte’s behavior, Speedo boldly took him to task in the statement and turned a bad situation into good by donating Lochte’s $50,000 endorsement fee to Save the Children.

Now that it’s all said and done, the Olympic flame is out and this scandal is dying down, the big question is, can Ryan Lochte make a comeback? Will he be forever portrayed as the villain of 2016 or will he emerge a stronger, better version of himself? My bets are on Lochte. If Michael Phelps can overcome his PR mishaps to win back the hearts and minds of America then certainly there’s a chance for another redemption story in 2020.

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