As a PR professional, two recent events have caught my eye: Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah that he took performance-enhancing drugs and then Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend turned out to be a hoax.
I immediately thought of what it might be like to give PR advice to the athletes at the center of these controversies. If I had to choose, which PR team would I work for — Team Lance or Team Te’o? So I formed my own opinion and then asked two colleagues what they thought. Here is the result.
I will have to pick Team Lance. He has already done the hard part. He sat down with Oprah and started to tell the truth which everyone had been suspecting. Lance doesn’t have to lie anymore. Sure, there will probably be lawsuits to come, but the worst has happened. There is really no other shoe that can drop. Lance also has a large platform to speak from, he is a pretty established celebrity and he likely has a smart team surrounding him. While you might argue that what Lance did is worse than the mess Manti seems to be in now, he can now start the long, hard work of repair. Focus on LIVESTRONG, stay out of the tabloids. In a few years run a masters marathon, then write (another) best-selling book.
Meanwhile, I get the distinct feeling that Manti is only at the beginning of his saga. There are so many questions about what he knew and when he knew it. People have been forming their own opinions about Lance for years. We don’t know what weird, dark, Internet rabbit hole this Manti Te’o story might go down. And the out-of-nowhere aspect of this story makes it all the more interesting. Also, Manti is in the unique position of having just left Notre Dame and getting ready to enter the NFL draft, meaning he’s got a number of people working with him — and notice that the university has been one of the main players here. There are probably too many cooks in the kitchen. The kid might not even have a PR rep in place, let alone one he trusts. While he loomed large in college football this year, Manti Te’o wasn’t exactly a household name until now. Lastly, this will likely impact where he gets drafted, and a fall of just a few places can mean a loss of millions of dollars. Lance has already made his money; Te’o hasn’t made a penny yet. And unlike Lance he can’t keep his head low for the next few years. He’s got to be out there trying to make a name for himself as a rookie and landing an endorsement deal.
What I’m taking away from this whole situation: Catfish just became a verb.
Madeline Wigen, Account Executive
I’m going to have to go with Manti Te’o. As I’ve watched this story unfold and learned of the nuances and unanswered questions, I’ve been struck by how, regardless of whether Te’o is telling the truth or not, I and most others I’ve spoken to have some compassion for him (as well as astonishment over how naïve or reckless he was). Either he was genuinely duped, or he was so misguided that this ruse seemed like a good idea to him. While Te’o may seem to have everything going for him, he is a 22-year-old living such a high-profile life that any and all of his collegiate mistakes have the potential to follow him forever. His interview with Katie Couric reinforced him as a sympathetic character, and even as Katie pointed out that his claims were unbelievable, he came across as honest and likeable.
One thing to consider is the impact that each athlete has had on his sport or team. Armstrong is at the center of a larger sport-wide doping scandal. He’s the target of disdain of his peers and nearly everyone who has worked with him. He was synonymous with the sport in this country and now he’s a huge part of its tarnished reputation. He is a symbol of corruption who cheated on his sport. Te’o, on the other hand, showed bad judgment in his personal life — to varying degrees based on what you believe (again, giving him the benefit of the doubt since we don’t know everything). Let’s say for a moment that Te’o, for whatever reason, was part of this hoax. At the end of the day he didn’t break any laws or physically harm anyone. He told an unsavory lie, but he was its biggest victim. In a league where Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger have been able to return successfully to their careers after much graver transgressions, I doubt that the worst-case scenario of the Te’o fiasco will have very far-reaching implications in his NFL career.
The biggest liability in doing PR for someone in a situation like Te’o’s is trust. He’s already admitted to his father and the press that he fabricated parts of the story. Working with him would be a huge challenge without full disclosure, but I also think it’s safe to say he’s been (at least a little bit) humbled. In the aftermath of the scandal we haven’t heard terrible things about the guy; in fact we’ve heard pretty nice things about him. Clearly Te’o could benefit from people looking out for him. He’s still massively talented and I believe he can emerge from this as a respected professional in the NFL. Managing his public image now could help a young guy with major potential move forward from this and see what he’s capable of at the next level.
Jimmy Knodel, Account Executive
Excellent points all around, ladies. These have been wild stories in sports for sure, going from the news everyone saw coming to the most off-the-wall, completely crazy revelation since I learned Grandmama was really just Larry Johnson in a dress. How do you trump one of the biggest, albeit not totally shocking, drug revelations of our time? Turn a heartfelt college football love story into a cautionary tale of online love. While there are huge PR implications on both accounts, I have to choose Team Te’o over Team Lance for one reason: Armstrong was in a no-win situation.
Lance Armstrong is not the first, and certainly not the last, star athlete to admit to being a cheater, and his sport was rife with guys doing the same thing. All that aside, we live in a society that is willing to forgive and forget when it comes to the transgressions of celebrities. The key lesson here, and one that Lance missed out on, is you can cheat and beg for forgiveness, but don’t be a jerk about it. Lance admitting to doping at this point is almost useless, because public opinion has already judged him and his confession comes across as completely self-serving. Plus, Lance spent the last decade not just denying the allegations, but making it his life’s work to completely destroy anyone who claimed he was a liar. Not only did he admit he cheated as an athlete, he showed that he is a really horrible person by nature. Lance shirked the rules for greatness, but he also lacks any sense of human decency or compassion. Not exactly a winning combination or something to put on a T-shirt.
In the end, Lance’s legacy will resemble that of Pete Rose. The greatest hitter in baseball history never once cheated on the field as a player; he just took some liberties as a manager. Say what you want about his personal demeanor: All 4,256 of his hits were achieved through talent and by the book. Baseball made an example of him for his conduct as a manager and banished from the league. Rather than fess up and ask for forgiveness, Rose spent his time claiming innocence, acting indecently as a person, charging little kids for his autograph in Cooperstown and confessed only when he had a book to promote. Not even a silly TLC reality show will save Rose now. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens may very well fall victim to a similar fate. All of these men let their ego and sense of entitlement erase any chance of them seeming sympathetic or trustworthy to the public. Lance lost even the fans that were clinging onto their yellow bracelets with this move and anything he does from now on will seem like a publicity stunt.
The Manti Te’o story is wild and eye-catching, mostly because the media had built him up into such an iconic figure in a short period of time, but he has a far better chance at redemption because it appears he really was duped. In this fast-moving media world of ours, there will be another salacious story to replace his soon. Also, Lance Armstrong was one of the most famous athletes in the world. Manti Te’o may go on to have a fine NFL career, but there is no way he will ever reach the level or notoriety, good or bad, where Lance resides — even if he admits that he was behind the whole hoax. He never started a rubber bracelet craze or convinced people to watch three weeks of men riding bikes through the French countryside. In the end, Lance will be remembered far more as a jerk than a cheater, and that is a much harder image to erase.
So there you have it. Team Te’o wins by a 2-1 margin. What do you think? Whose team are you on?