Olympic Swimmer is PR Poison After Confession Gaffes
By Scott Sobel, Senior Strategy and Communications Executive, kglobal
Keeping a crisis from metastasizing into a disaster is the goal of reputation managers. Ryan Lochte and his sponsors were out of luck the second he opened his mouth and tried to answer initial and then follow-up questions that involved any sophistication.
I really don’t intend to be mean spirited but the swimmer is great at putting one arm in front of the other, breathing when his head turns out of the water and kicking. He is not great at putting one thought and sentence together. He is not Solomon when it comes to judgment and ad-libbing and he never should have been served up again to NBC News’ Matt Lauer, who also dropped the ball during the initial interview and was out for blood, like a shark in the water, during the last “get.” Not so tough a get since NBC and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) were in bed with one another for this cycle. In the case of the Lochte disaster, being in bed figuratively also meant bad sex.
You can’t blame sponsors swimming away from Lochte in a frenzied sprint. His advisors who took a one-size-fits-all approach to crisis management handled him poorly. Of course, that’s easy for me to say since I don’t have insider knowledge here and there could be legal or other reasons for serving-up Lochte to the media to fillet like a lox. As mentioned, Lochte isn’t very sharp, bless him. He stumbled through the entire affair, answering the predictable, “what were you thinking” questions (we guess not too much) as apologies or faux apologies, during the last interviews.
It’s one thing for sponsors to grit their teeth and hope for the best when a celebrity or athlete just has to look the part and spout simple platitudes after a sporting event where the athlete displays courage, conditioning and a sparkling smile. It’s another thing for a sponsor to stick by a jock, who put the Olympics and their product’s reputation in jeopardy and had nothing endearing or believable to say.
From this point on, Lochte is forever a damaged brand; there is little or no redemption. His mistakes and lack of facility and sincerity have hit that indelible repetitive negative association tipping point. The collective hippocampus area of our brains that retrieves long-term memories has heard and seen Lochte mess-up on too many levels, too many times, to believe what he says next, or worse, to erase the images of what he said in the first place. To rearrange the famous quote attributed to American founding father Alexander Hamilton, the masses now certainly associate Ryan Lochte with being an insufferable ass. What sponsor wants to take a chance on hitching a ride on the Lochte rollercoaster, which shows no sign of getting back on the rails?
This is also a case of not knowing whether Lochte was indeed sorry for what he did or just sorry for getting caught … one of the rare cases where advising a client to say, “I’m so sorry, no further comment,” would have been, in retrospect, a blessing.