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?
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!