When Apologizing isn’t the Best Crisis Management

It’s a rare and unenviable situation

The pages of this blog are full of crisis management case studies where we recommend that organizations or individuals apologize for their actions, so much so that it might lead one to assume that there are no cases where it’s better to do the opposite.

Although far less common, situations do exist where it’s best to simply stay silent. One of them is when admitting fault would do more harm than good, and we believe Duncan Matheson, has found the perfect example. Take a look at this quote, from his post on the BissetMatheson blog, “Why Lance Armstrong will never apologize” –

Crisis communications wisdom would suggest he has to get out there in front of some cameras and take responsibility as the first step to rebuilding the brand.

Even though a well-crafted apology would be the first step of a long journey, it’s not going to happen in Armstrong’s case. There are two reasons – the first is money. The second is that it could land him in jail.

While his endorsement contracts, Nike and the others, have left him, if he confessed to doping they would be looking for reimbursement. Firms always take risks when they choose someone famous as a spokesperson, because you never know.

For this reason, these contracts have morals clauses that say something along the lines of promising not to do anything that draws negative attention. They aren’t anything new. Babe Ruth had to sign one way back in the 20’s. And the athlete doesn’t have to be convicted of anything to trigger it, just do something that turns out to be an embarrassment.  

They can cancel Armstrong’s contracts, as in fact they have done, but suing him is unlikely because it would mean a long drawn out court case, which entails more negative publicity, and it would be expensive.

As an aside, it’s interesting that FRS energy supplements, one of the companies that dumped Armstrong, has replaced him with Christian football player Tim Tebow. I am guessing here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that decision was based more than anything else, on getting somebody who isn’t likely to cause them any trouble.  Someone safe – like Armstrong seemed to be way back when, and Tebow seems now.

Then there are those libel suits Armstrong won against people who publicly accused him of doping. Think they wouldn’t want their money back?

To get it now, they would have to take him to court. With his millions (he is estimated to have 125 million) he could have proceedings tied up for years.

But if he confessed, ah, that would be a whole different story. Or as my mother used to say – that would change the water on the beans.  

As you can see, it really has to be a “perfect storm” of negative conditions to make clamming up the top choice for crisis management. Armstrong at this point has nothing to lose. His brand no longer exists, and he has no dire need to make more money, so protecting his reputation would not be a business decision but a purely personal move that, as Duncan says, could very well land him broke and in jail.

The type of crisis management is less like bailing out a ship that’s taken on water and more like admitting the thing is sunk and loading all your valuables into a life raft to furiously paddle for land. It’s not an enviable position to be in, but sometimes apologizing really isn’t the best crisis management.

The BCM Blogging Team