If Armstrong had studied the popularity of steroid-using baseball stars, he would have known: better to keep lying than come clean
Lance Armstrong’s doping admission to Oprah was a public relations nightmare in the making. While we can all agree that Lance would have been better-off not cheating at all (or at least confessing sooner), it’s fairly clear that once he cheated and lied, he probably should have kept lying if he wanted to maintain his public standing.
Yes, Lance’s favorability took a hit with the American public in the past year, but – even after the Usada report revelations in October 2012 – this drop in public approval was stabilizing prior to Oprah. His net favorable rating (+favorable minus –unfavorable) dropped 75pt, as doping rumors became louder and louder, from +76pt, in 2005, to +1pt, in October 2012.
Yet, by early January 2013, only 37% of American sports fans believed he should not get credit for his career accomplishments – including his seven Tour de France victories (sic). This compares with October 2012, when 49% thought Armstrong should give his medals back.
Before Oprah, in other words, Lance had more Americans with him than against him. And there was little sign that this would have changed, had he kept up the charade.
The first public polling on Lance seems to show that all his support is gone. After the Oprah interview aired, only 21% of Americans polled thought that he could now restore his reputation. This scientific poll conducted with Tampa Bay area residents by SurveyUSA demonstrated no gender, race, or real age gap. Polls done in the Portland and San Diego metropolitan areas produced the same findings.
Lance’s confession succeeded in alienating everybody. Only 17% in the SurveyUSA survey thought that Lance was being completely honest with Oprah. Those who thought he was a liar beforehand continue to think so now. Those who defended Lance for years, like ESPN’s Rick Reilly, now just feel they were duped. This is the political equivalent of having your own base turn against you.
This series of events matches the research on athletes who admit to steroid use in US sports, which indicates that it’s better just to keep denying: MM Haigh found that baseball players who apologized to their fans were no more likely to receive positive news coverage than those who did not. Jessica Korn studied polling data (pdf) and discovered that admission and apology actually resulted in decreased favorability, while denial was a more successful PR strategy.
That’s why Lance’s interview was a mistake. Had he just continued lying, history says that he still would have been able to convince many people, perhaps even the majority, that he was telling the truth. Armstrong, after all, was the person who had come back from cancer to “win” the Tour de France; the man who used his legacy to start the Livestrong charity foundation.
Public skepticism about whether Armstrong is even capable of candor will also hurt him if he tries to get back into competitive cycling and triathlon (even assuming he succeeds in getting his lifetime ban reduced). Anti-doping officials claim he cheated during his comeback in 2009 and 2010, while Lance told Oprah otherwise. Lacking almost all credibility, Armstrong is not in a good position to negotiate over that ban.
The only silver lining for Lance is that if he and cycling officials ever agree on terms for his return to competition, the public will be with them: 52% think that, at least at some point, he should be allowed to ride again. The problem for Armstrong is that 45% think he should never get a chance; an additional 26% that he should at least have to wait a few years. In all, a clear majority, 71%, considers that his punishment should stand for some time yet.
Whatever Armstrong’s strategic goal – to return to competition or just to begin a process of rehabilitation that makes him less toxic as a public figure – the trade-off would only be worth it if Armstrong’s favorability could recover. But this stain on his favorability is likely permanent: 63% of Americans say it’s unlikely Armstrong will be able to restore his reputation.
The numbers say that Armstrong has painted himself into a corner by confessing: the problem for this fallen American icon is that few, if any, now even believe in his apologies.