U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong failed to convey a genuine sense of remorse or contrition, and so did little to repair his tarnished reputation during his first interview with Oprah Winfrey, a number of marketing and public relations experts say.
During the highly-anticipated and publicized sit-down interview on Thursday, Armstrong finally admitted to Winfrey that, after years of fierce and repeated denials, he did in fact use banned performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career, including the seven times he won the coveted Tour de France.
He also admitted that in his drive to maintain his innocence, he attacked teammates and journalists who claimed he was using banned substances — either by intimidation or threat of lawsuit.
But despite his apology and confession, the initial reaction from the general public and marketing experts to his first interview appears to be a failing grade.
The lengthy interview was broken into two parts, and the the second instalment aired Friday on the Oprah Winfrey Network and online.
"I think that when somebody has lied, cheated and bullied over the course of 15 years, I think the road to rehabilitation is a long one," says Steven Lewis, president of XMC Sports and Entertainment, a Toronto-based sponsorship and marketing company. "And I think that Lance lacked credibility and lacked true contrition, and I don't think that interview did anything last night to help his public image.
"The emotion that he displayed, I don't think aligned with the actions that he undertook."
Lewis contrasted Armstrong's situation to that of golfer Tiger Woods, who became snarled in his own long-running controversy following revelations of a series of extra-marital affairs.
Although Wood's transgressions revealed a flaw in his personal conduct, Lewis said it didn't compromise his integrity in relation to his sport or as an athlete.
"So [in Armstrong's case] we have an integrity issue, a deep character flaw — lying, bullying. cheating — and coupled with that a complete disregard for the rules of sport," Lewis said.
"From a sponsor perspective, I think it's high risk to ever get back in bed with Lance Armstrong. Time will tell and time does heal wounds. But it will be many many years before a sponsor aligns again with the brand of Lance Armstrong, which has been severely if not irreparably damaged."
While the American public in particular seems to love an underdog, and to accord people second chances, Armstrong didn't come across "as a compelling, empathetic, apologetic character that one would want to cheer for," Lewis said.
What's more, says Chris Eby, a senior consultant for the public relations firm Navigator, Armstrong's advisers made a critical error by allowing Oprah to do pre-interview publicity in which she suggested that Armstrong wasn't completely forthcoming.
"By allowing Oprah to frame the entire interview before it even aired, people who may have been sitting on the fence or were willing to listen to the interview then make their minds up, basically had their minds made up for them," Eby said.
"And so he suddenly had to climb out of this hole that Oprah put him in and, based on my read of the interview last night, he didn't come close to doing that."
As for his TV performance, Eby said it was clear that Armstrong had some message lines that he was trying to get across.
"The unfortunate thing for him is that there's this wealth of footage of him denying accusations, attacking people, bullying people that's readily available to people online. That has been played ad nauseum in a continuous loop on cable news channels for the better part of the week.
"So we've seen how cold and calculating and effective he is as a liar, and he looked the exact same."
A control freak?
At the same time, Jill Scott, a Queen's University professor in the department of language, literature and culture, said she believes that Armstrong seemed to be hitting all the right buttons — at least at first.
"He started off pretty good. He answered all the questions and he said all the right things at the right times, early on. And that was fantastic," she said.
Scott, who researches conflict resolution, including apologies, said Armstrong did a good job of ticking off the list of standard requirements of an apology — confession , contrition, acknowledgement of pain inflicted on others, remorse, repentance, and acknowledgement that more needs to be done.
"But the further you got on in the interview, the murkier the waters became," Scott said.
Armstrong began micro-managing his message when it came to talking about other people, Scott said. That slowly reduced his portion of responsibility by entering into the territory "of excuse, justification and blame of others."
"As he got deeper into the interview, and clips are coming, we saw the old Lance coming back. Why? The guy is simply a control freak. He was a control freak on the bike, and now he's a control freak on the apology."