USA Swimming’s token frat boy entered the Rio Olympic games with newly bleached hair and his usual devil-may-care attitude, but left with his tail between his legs and lost endorsement deals. Ryan Lochte, who has never been accused of being a PR genius, learned the hard way that the crime is never as bad as the cover-up.
As most know, Lochte and three fellow swimmers claimed that they were robbed at gun point on their way back to the Olympic village in a Rio taxi. It quickly came to light, however, that the true story involved the athletes vandalizing a gas station bathroom and then having an altercation with a security guard and the property owner. Following a police investigation and a public apology to the people of Brazil, the four-time Olympian lost endorsement deals from four companies including heavy-hitters Speedo and Ralph Lauren. In addition, Lochte faced public ridicule, even being impersonated (in a not-so-flattering way) by Jimmy Fallon at the VMAs.
Brands and their marketing teams can learn an important lesson from Lochte’s antics: transparency in the face of a PR crisis is the best move to protect your assets.
Let’s take it from the beginning and point out the Lochte actually did one thing right here: he got in front of the news and released a statement on the event before journalists, pundits and the social media universe got wind of the incident. This is important because it allowed Lochte to craft a narrative of the event that would sway the media coverage in the direction that he chose, instead of the direction that the media or public chose. His mistake, of course, was to completely fabricate his account of the incident. He wasn’t transparent. Had his statement been that he had used poor judgment and wanted to make a formal apology for his actions, the news would have been significantly less surprising. Again, because Lochte has never been know for exhibiting exemplary behavior, his actions, while wrong, would not have been a huge shock to the public.
The situation Lochte finds himself in, however, is apologizing after he’s been caught in a lie. His lack of transparency gives the perception that had the truth not been reveled by others, that Lochte would have maintained his version of the story. The result is that the public cannot trust him to be honest. This is a particularly dangerous position to be in if you’re a brand who sponsors him—you don’t want to be associated with a celebrity who can’t be trusted. His endorsement of your brand not only falls flat, but it could actually have a negative impact on your business.
The moral of the story is, if your brand is facing a PR crisis, keep three important things in mind:
- Get in front of it. Guide the media coverage to your side of the story and account of the facts. Coming forward first eliminates any gossip or false stories developing without hard facts.
- Be transparent. The account and apology, when necessary, needs to be sincere. An apology issued after being caught red-handed is going to be much harder for the public and your customers to accept, and could be very damaging to your brand’s reputation.
- Follow up. Your brand needs to do what it says it’s going to do in terms of making the situation right or resolving outstanding issues. An honest recovery after a misstep can not only repair damage done to a brand, it can actually strengthen the public’s trust.