By Steven Fink, President and CEO, Lexicon Communications Corp.
Ryan Lochte finally figured a way to get out from under Michael Phelps’ shadow. But jumping into the deep end of the pool while wearing a pair of concrete boots was not the best way to do it.
For those living under a rock for the past week or so, Lochte fabricated a bizarre and frightening tale of being robbed at gunpoint along with three other USA Olympic swimmers while they were stopped at a Rio gas station late at night. But within 24 hours, the story started to unravel and, in the end, it proved completely false. And the Brazilian government, the IOC, the USOC, and the U.S. Swimming federation were not amused. While Lochte got out of Brazil without being detained, two other swimmers were pulled off their home-bound plane the next day and hauled off to jail for some intense questioning; a third swimmer was forced to pay a $10,800 fine before he was released many hours later.
The current — emphasis on the word current — version has it that Lochte, et.al, after a night of hard partying and hard drinking, inflicted some minor damage/vandalism to the gas station bathroom. Specifically, Lochte apparently pulled a poster down from a wall. But why create the moronic lie in the first place? Three words:
Fear of loss.
Lochte earns money from his sponsors, notably Speedo and Ralph Lauren. If he were to lose his sponsorships, he’d be screwed. But, would a nuisance claim of vandalism ever rise to a DEFCON 3 level, or the attention of his sponsors? No, and Lochte should have known that.
So why lie? The “crime” wasn’t on anyone’s radar…until the lying started. The Brazilian authorities were a little sensitive about the initial allegation involving police officers being paid off, so they started to probe. And they made sure the probe became public when they suspected a fabricated tale.
Perhaps there is something else the boys are covering up, something more sinister. Hookers, maybe? Drugs?
I have no idea, but to create a frightening tale of being robbed with a “gun cocked and pointed at my forehead,” according to the first public version of Lochte’s story, raises more questions than it answers. This is not crisis management, it’s crisis causation.
In my most recent book, Crisis.Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, in a chapter entitled “Telling The Truth,” I explain that “the single most important corollary to ‘tell the truth’ is ’a lie will be found out.’ Count on it. Telling the truth up front avoids explaining the cover-up down the road.”
And what exactly was that $10,800 fine for? That has all the earmarks of a payoff, but to whom? Who’s getting rich down there?
And now, US Swimming officials have promised a full investigation. We haven’t heard the end of this.
Sadly, Lochte’s stupidity (arrogance?) has tarnished what heretofore were stellar games for the United States, with a record number of gold medals. And perhaps has tarnished his relationships with his sponsors.
If there’s more to tell, Lochte should step up and speak out…before someone else does. A good story will always get out, with or without your help. I always advise my clients that it is always better to play offense rather than defense. Tell the story first, your way, before someone else tells it their way.
Lochte’s hiring of a PR firm will ultimately do him no good. Now, more than ever, he needs to be contrite and candid, not slick and packaged.
But right now, he’s all wet.