After several years of strongly denying doping allegations hurled at him, Lance Armstrong appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s chat show to finally admit what the whole world pretty much already knew – that he did indeed take performance enhancing drugs to win the Tour De France a record seven times.
Instead of the intended clean slate that Armstrong thought the interview would grant him – an Etch-a-Sketch redo to allow him to shift the focus back to competing in triathlons – the reaction in the media has been to explore Armstrong’s admission as a well-orchestrated PR stunt.
Some critics have at least heaped praise on his carefully concocted media and PR strategy that is fighting to undo months of intensely negative publicity. Writing for Canada.com, PR practitioner Elissa Freeman notes:
“In what will undoubtedly be a PR case study for years to come, the engineering of Lance Armstrong’s comeback is something to behold. And by engineering, I mean every quote by an anonymous source, every ‘leak’ to a major media outlet, every appearance prior to the main telecast, has been carefully crafted and timed. All to culminate in a grand moment of repentance.”
Others, however, were not impressed by this grand moment of repentance. The media has consistently criticized Armstrong for his intentions and manipulation – arguing that a quicker, more sincere apology was needed.
But while the media seems focused on Armstrong’s faux news moment (it’s difficult to break news when everyone knows what to expect), there something else worth noticing.
Days before this high profile interview, billionaire, TV icon, and mega-celebrity Oprah Winfrey appeared on CBS to discuss her interview with Armstrong.
Winfrey was exceedingly comfortable during the interview (she has been facing the camera for several decades now) but she also revealed another aspect that has driven her success: her exceedingly good sense of how to build and promote brand Oprah.
Although the CBS interview was littered with I-can’t-tell-yous (a fact mocked by satirist and comedian Stephen Colbert, amongst others), it had enough moments of pure Oprahisms to ensure a large audience and piqued curiosity – even amongst those who neither care for cycling nor Armstrong nor the current state of professional athletics.
Winfrey has interviewed almost all of the most influential people in the world and, since many of these have come during crucial junctures in their lives, she has been able to draw high ratings in a way that has defied the television landscape. There are two sides to this story. For one, Winfrey has built a personal brand and level of prominence that will guarantee celebrities like Armstrong record ratings – if you have a make a big reveal, you might as well hope everyone is listening.
But the second reason why Armstrong picked Winfrey is because of her reputation – and the positive sentiment that she attracts. Over her thirty year career in television, Winfrey has built a reputation of honesty and credibility; her audience trusts her. So, in a sense, not only has Winfrey built a stellar reputation, but she has also proved her ability to transfer some of her good will onto the damaged celebrities she interviews. Coupled with a greater possibility of controlling the interview’s tenor and content, Winfrey’s couch is a Mecca for celebrities who want an instant image reboot, if such a thing is even possible.
David Letterman and his cheating scandal; Whitney Houston and her drug addiction; Erin Andrews and her leaked tape; Maria Shriver and her husband’s cheating scandal; Marion Jones and her performance enhancing drugs; Sarah Ferguson and a bribery scandal – if there is a thread that connects these celebrities’ lowest points it is the magical second chance and high level of sympathy that Oprah’s couch offers. Of course, Oprah’s powerful influence also swings both ways – as the author James Frey painfully learned.
In truth all these public figures, including Armstrong, could learn a lot from Winfrey. She hasn’t been without her scandals – the abuse in her South African school, the rumors about her personal life – but with an ability to directly, quickly, and sincerely address these issues, she minimizes the damage to her credibility. Plus, Winfrey has remained a master of promotion. She controls expectations and teases big moments in such a way to almost guarantee high levels of buzz.
Which brings us back to her interview with CBS. A few days ahead of the Armstrong interview, Winfrey said, “I think it’s the certainly the biggest interview I’ve ever done in terms of its exposure,” both setting the expectations while also inviting viewers to reflect on her remarkable television career.
Of course, the audience was hooked. With unprecedented hype, she had guaranteed record viewership to her flagship OWN network – which has been struggling to compete with other established television stations.
Not everyone was impressed. Journalist Drew Sharp, writing in the Detroit Free Press, did not get caught up by the hype around Oprah’s scoop. He wrote: “It’s staged news. It’s not an attempt at journalism. This is public relations.”
I’m not sure if Winfrey would disagree. On the back of a glittering career marked with a very astute understanding of creating and maintaining her brand, Oprah has a lot to teach the likes of Armstrong.
Written by Kunal Pal for Image Management