"These top athletes are perceived as role models and when they fail to maintain that level of trust, it’s difficult to get it back. Pete Rose is a great example. One of history’s greatest baseball players, but he’s been perhaps permanently scarred by his gambling,” says Mitch Leff, president of Leff & Associates, a public-relations firm in Atlanta. “People will forgive someone who makes a mistake, or does something illegal or unethical, if they admit what they did and show a real effort to change. But when someone lies for years and years, in interview after interview, it is very difficult to forgive.”
That means Armstrong must come across as absolutely sincere – an immense challenge based on his past.
“In his interview with Oprah – and in others that may follow – he must be perceived as genuinely contrite about his past mistakes and not just using the opportunity as a springboard to other pursuits,” says Richard Goedkoop, retired professor of communication at LaSalle University. “This will be a challenge since his denials on this subject go back at least 10 years. Why should we believe he is sincere now?”
One huge factor in his favor, say Goedkoop and others, is Armstrong’s long association with the Livestrong cancer charity he founded and ran for a number of years as a well-known cancer survivor himself. For that reason, many people want Armstrong to succeed because he is their genuine hero.
But first he must show that he is aware – and sorry for – the damage that he caused.
“He has to admit guilt and apologize but also needs to show that he is sorry and be perceived by the public as having paid a price,” says Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, an image relations firm. “He needs to claim responsibility and not blame others, otherwise the resistance will continue to undermine his chances of acceptance and redemption.”
One way to show contrition, says Mr. Leff, would be to become a leading voice in world antidoping efforts.