November 29, 2022

Crisis Communications and Ryan Lochte

Written by: Aubree Tolley

As we discussed in class this week, A reputation can take years and years to build, but it only takes one incident to ruin it. With the 2018 Winter Olympics in full swing, let us look back at one of the most outrageous and infamous Olympic crisis involving an athlete.

If anyone needed the help of a crisis communication team, it was U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte during the 2016 Rio Olympic games. It took less than a week for all of the world to witness the downfall of the gold medal-winning swimmer’s reputation.  In case you were hiding under a rock the last two years or hate the Olympics, here is a quick summary of the Lochte international scandal. Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers claimed they were robbed at gunpoint at a Rio gas station during the Olympic games and continued to lie about the “near-death experience” to press for a week after. Long story short, the “robbery” was a cover for Lochte’s  drunk behavior that night. 

Here are three major takeaways I have learned from the Ryan Lochte scandal:

#1: Have a PR plan BEFORE:

First things first. It is crucial for any high profile athlete to have public relations/media staff on hand at all times, especially during the Olympics. At the Olympics and similar sporting events, athletes are expected to be in the spotlight with interviews, paparazzi, and engagement with fans. Athletes are not actors or musicians so usually they need more coaching when it comes media interviews as they are not used to a lot of media attention 24/7 which can be overwhelming.   Shockingly, when it comes to Ryan Lochte, it appears as though he did not have strong PR plan going into Rio. This is surprising as Lochte is infamously known for not having the best media and interview skills and he is constantly mocked online for sounding “stupid” in his interviews.

Directly after the news of the alleged robbery broke, Lochte did an interview that was broadcasted nationally and spread across social media.  Lochte later claimed that he was, “still intoxicated” from the night before during the interview. This is a HUGE PR mistake for two reasons:

1) Lochte’s PR team should have intervened and prevented the interview from even happening in the first place and waited until the entire situation and facts were known.

 2) He should have been media prepped with key messages.

#2: Be SIMPLE:

Lochte stuck to his story and did not quickly apologize for his lie. This caused him to be in a situation where he would be blindsided by new information regarding his “robbery.” Ryan Lochte partying and being drunk at a gas station is hardly newsworthy news. He is known for that reputation of being a party animal. But  Lochte making up a story about being robbed at gunpoint during the Olympics creates international and embarrassing consequences that eventually caused him to be dropped from sponsorships such as Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Mattress Maker Airwave and Gentle Hair Removal. It is important to remember, a crisis can be prevented if handled within 24-48 hours. Lochte allowed for his crisis to grow by lying in interviews.

Lochte finally created a crisis plan in an attempt to fix his public image and prep him for his formal apology in a primetime interview with Matt Lauer that aired during the Olympic coverage. Lochte’s PR team worked on three main key statements: Apologizing, taking the blame and admitting that he lied. Lochte also revamped his appearance by dressing nicely, getting a haircut and making sure to stick to his three key statements. Did this work fix his damaged reputation?  

Short of. 

There is not much a crisis communication professional can fix after a situation has been handled so terribly for more than 48 hours.

#3: Lessons LEARNED:

What does Ryan Lochte’s gas station scandal tell us? Well, it shows us the importance of having a PR plan ahead of time. Crisis communication is all about being prepared, anticipating the worse and being ready to respond. His incident highlights how he was not prepared in any way. If he had been prepared, it would just be another Ryan Lochte partying story, not the embarrassing international fiasco it became.

Let’s hope all of the Olympic athletes competing in this years 2018 winter Olympics are media prepared and prepared for any situation that could possibly arise. GO TEAM USA!


Twitter: @aubree_tolley

8 thoughts on “Crisis Communications and Ryan Lochte

  1. Ryan Lochte is a great example … I really like the be simple suggestion. Sometimes you can make things a lot worse if the plan of action is overcomplicated.

  2. Thank you for writing about this, I had honestly forgot this happened! This was super fun to read and very interesting. I completely agree with you on having a PR plan and the steps to achieve that!

  3. This was a great piece about crisis communication with athletes. I am not a huge fan of the summer Olympics (I’m a HUGE fan of the winter one) and I heard about this incident instantly. It really shows you how little things and simple little lies can become a huge PR nightmare. I think the takeaways break down was a great way to get this information presented.

  4. I love that we both decided to talk about the Olympics! It is such a massive global event that it’s impossible for crazy things like this not to happen. I know Ryan Lochte has said he wants to go to the 2020 Olympics, so it will be interesting to see if another event like this unfolds or if his PR team will have a plan in preparation.

  5. Thanks for the post! I agree with the three takeaways and like how you expanded on them. I remember this situation but honestly don’t remember how it was handled. If you were associated, how would you handle the situation?

  6. This was a really fun post to read. Not only is having a PR plan important, but in this day in age, it is essential. We live in a world where we — particularly, but not only, the rich and famous among us — are recorded 24/7. We also live in a world where anything you’ve posted online is still there even if you delete it. Even though Ryan Lochte lied and kept it going for a while, he did manage to gain his reputation back to some degree. When a celebrity has a major PR disaster, they usually go on Dancing With The Stars and get back in people’s good graces again. In addition, I think it is interesting to look at how Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have dealt with their PR disasters. Every time Michael had a DUI or got caught with a drug, he owned it and apologized right away- that is why he is still so beloved and respected by the public. If Ryan would have done the same thing, his reputation would have not have been as bad.

  7. Hi Aubree, great post! “Crisis communication is all about being prepared, anticipating the worse and being ready to respond” really resonated with me. I am curious how many brands are equipped with crisis communication plan arsenals and their budget to create and maintain these. It’s obviously worth the investment when something comes up, but how often do these plans play out long term for brand.

  8. I forgot all about the Ryan Lochte fiasco, fantastic example! But you are so right without a PR plan you are honestly playing with fire just waiting for a chance to get burnt.

Comments are closed.