Lochte: Lies, Lawyers and Likeability
Remember when you were a kid and you got in trouble? Your Mom and Dad, who somehow always knew you were guilty, would say “If you’re honest with us the punishment won’t be as bad”, or “Tell us the truth and everything will be okay.”
It continues to amaze me why politicians, sports stars and celebrities think they can lie their way through issues in their lives. After all, their parents must have given them the same line about telling the truth. Have they forgotten, or do they truly believe they can avoid getting nailed for bad behaviour?
It’s more difficult than ever to do so. The media has changed, social media can “out” bad behaviour and there are cameras everywhere to cover your every move. There’s never been a time that it’s been harder to make a lie stick.
That’s why the Ryan Lochte story is so fascinating and what goes on behind the scenes between lawyers, PR people, agents and sponsors is ever better
By now you’ve heard the story – Ryan Lochte, the most successful American swimmer this side of Michael Phelps, said he was robbed at gunpoint during the Rio Olympics, along with three fellow swimmers. His story started unraveling right away and he returned home to a storm of controversy when it became clear he had, to use his term “over exaggerated” the facts about the reported robbery. It seemed to be much more of a case of a drunken night that he started his own trouble by vandalizing a sign at a gas station and a robbery never occurred.
Companies pulled their endorsements from Lochte quicker than an Olympic 100-metre sprint, costing Lochte millions. Lochte, who had his hair dyed a grayish-white colour while in Rio, suddenly had his natural colour back as he tried to restore his image with a series of media interviews to tell his side of the story.
I’m always fascinated by stories like this because of what the athletes say and exactly how they say it. Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong are the two examples that come to mind. They faced the media to respond to very different, but terribly negative stories. It was clearly obvious both had been extensively coached.
I know how the game works, because I do this all the time in my media training sessions. Learn everything you can about the issue, anticipate the questions the media will ask, develop key messages to respond to those questions and then practice. I do it in every corporate media training session. I’ve also worked with some high profile clients, but nobody close to somebody like Lochte. Still though, the process is much the same. The stakes are higher, but the preparation is much the same.
The really interesting discussion takes place between the client’s lawyer and the crisis communications, or public relations firm that’s been hired to get the celebrity prepared to face the media.
Lawyer – “Whatever we do, we can’t have him say this (fill in the blank here). He also can’t say (fill in another blank here).
PR Person – “So what can he say then?”
Lawyer – “I would prefer he not say anything right now. One of us should explain he doesn't want to do anything that might prejudice the outcome of this investigation.”
PR Person – “Yes but I want him to admit he did it, take full responsibility, promise it won’t happen again and tell the world how sorry he is.”
Lawyer – “And I want to preserve his right to be presumed innocent in a court of law. So, unless he wants to toss out the benefit of the doubt, it's best he not make a public admission of guilt."
PR Person – “But we have a brand to protect here. He has to get out in front of this and control the narrative. Can he say anything without incriminating himself?”
Lawyer – “I guess that's up to you. You're the one who has to figure out what he should say in the court of public opinion.”
PR Person – “Oh boy”
Who Calls the Shots
Athletes, other celebrities and their managers hire lawyers to make sure their legal rights aren’t violated and they don’t do something to make things worse. There’s nothing wrong with that. We would all want the same thing if we were in that situation. Lawyers also rely on the rules of evidence, presumptions of innocence and burdens of proof to ensure trial processes are fair and also to save their clients from being wrongfully convicted. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Laws are made and lawyers do their best in working with others in the legal system to make sure laws are properly followed.
PR people/media consultants/crisis communicators really don’t care about the legal issues their client faces. They care about their client’s brand and image. They feel if the client’s brand remains intact they’ll still be able to make a good living.
Lawyers, on the other hand, are paid to keep their clients from going to jail and to limit their exposure to damage awards in civil lawsuits. In some cases, it's not this black and white, but in most cases it is. That’s simple reality. Lawyers are trained to help people with the law, while PR people help the same people with their image. That’s just the way it is.
If it comes down to making a choice on who to listen to, the lawyer normally wins. Avoiding jail time or limiting financial damage are normally more important than restoring the brand of a celebrity. Besides, regardless of what’s said in media interviews, there’s no guarantee the brand won’t be damaged anyway. The questions become, how long will it take before the story blows over and how badly the brand will be affected. It’s hard to improve your brand while you’re on trial or in jail.
Lochte’s Empty Explanation
Let’s take a look at Ryan Lochte’s written public apology. I would be willing to bet the house that he never wrote it. It was likely the work of a PR agency, assisted by his lawyer, agent and possibly others. Call it a team effort. You’ll notice he never admitted to lying to police, or filing a fictitious police report. He apologized for his behaviour and for not being more careful and candid in how he described events. You see, there’s nothing illegal about not being careful or candid. It is illegal to lie to police as you file a report saying you were robbed. Of course, he never said that in his statement.
Now let’s turn our attention to the television interviews he did. The one with NBC’s Matt Laurer was the one most people saw. You’ll hear Lochte say many of the same things that were in his written statement. That’s called staying on message. That’s what he was trained to do. That’s the way the game works.
In another interview he did with ABC News, the reporter said Lochte used the phrase “over exaggerated” eight times. It’s the same thing I mentioned just a moment ago. There’s no law against “over exaggerating.” There is a law against filing a false police report. By the way, using the term “over exaggerating” is a redundant phrase. Using the word “exaggerating” says the same thing. It’s like saying “added bonus” or “advance notice”, but don’t get me started on redundant phrases.
Just a day or two after the interviews, Lochte was charged by police in Brazil with filing a false robbery report. He could face a maximum of 18 months in jail, but whether a trial will ever occur isn’t known.
It’s debatable as to whether Lochte’s public statements have put him in a better legal position, because if the matter goes to trial, those statements will be tested again, in not only the court of public opinion, but also in a court of law, where credibility is currency.
To be as blunt as I possibly can, people can generally see through bullshit. They know Lochte is only saying what lawyers and PR people have told him to say. It would be so much easier to forgive and forget if somebody like Lochte was honest and not in damage control mode.
My simple rule of thumb is, that sucking and blowing never work. Accepting responsibility means accepting consequences. But when someone makes a less than fulsome public apology, using words that attempt to avoid self-incrimination, this is often the end result. I’m not blaming lawyers or PR people, because they have jobs to do, but the end result is rarely what people really want to hear.
If Lochte would have listened to what his Mom and Dad told him 25 years ago, his image would be in much better shape.
Online Media Training
5 Reasons You Need Media Training
What I've Learned Helping People Speak to the Media
To get my blog emailed to your inbox each week, click here.