Issuing a public apology when media expose ill-advised life choices is not only necessary, it’s an absolute must to survive in business, politics – and as Lance Armstrong is finally realizing – in sports. How the banned cyclist’s public apology plays out will be part of his brand save or epic fail this week.

In the much anticipated Oprah Winfrey interview scheduled Thursday and Friday this week, the confirmation for Armstrong’s apology/admission to doping was confirmed via Ms. O herself in a TV segment with her good friend Gayle King, co-anchor of “CBS This Morning.”

The lengthy interview, which has now expanded to two nights of broadcasts, will air on Winfrey’s network OWN Thursday at 9 p.m. and Friday at 9 p.m.

Negotiating Public Apology Terms with Media is a Given

For anyone who has worked with media, a whopper apology like this is carefully  negotiated – set with ground rules and with a journalist selected by the apologist to conduct the on-camera Q&A.

Certain questions are considered fair game. Many questions are out. This interview was also likely heavily lawyered. Any admissions by Armstrong come with a potential price of paying back sponsorship dollars under morals clauses or facing additional perjury charges for lying.

Even the setting of the interview – Armstrong’s hometown of Austin, Texas – was probably a negotiated point of discussion.

Armstrong stared directly into the camera for years and has said: I have never doped.

Armstrong’s Public Apology is a Long-Awaited Sound Bite

Now, what he chooses to say is the sound bite the world awaits.

How he will be judged moving forward depends a lot on the delivery of the admission and sentiment behind his messaging.

Stripped of his seven cycling titles from the Tour de France, Armstrong has had some time to think about his future and his future income.

Winfrey, too, has been careful in selecting her words to describe the interview and who gets the details first (her best friend) despite the leaks from “a person with knowledge of the situation” (probably a publicist choosing words wisely).

Nothing can be so contrived as a public apology – unless you see an actual public meltdown occur in front of the TV cameras as it happens.

But necessary they are. And what Armstrong failed to do early is to issue a written statement quickly and decisively to let the dust settle and attempt to polish his tarnished brand.

Finding Your Way to the Public Apology

For anyone else coming close to an Armstrong moment (or before it gets that bad), consider the following:

  • Make apologies quickly and make them brief. Life goes on.
  • Be available to make your own apology and don’t put a spokesperson out there to do it for you. Taking the heat is a necessary part of the job and the public appreciates adult behavior.
  • Don’t whine—either to colleagues or to the media. An obvious error in judgment is an obvious error.
  • Move on. If critics and political opponents continue to have at it, that behavior reflects looks like, and generally is, obvious political maneuvering. Most everyone appreciates a sincere apology; sincere being the key word.

One of the best-handled career stink bombs on my home turf happened to Indiana’s own Evan Bayh, who was asked in 1988 in the early days of his political career if he had ever smoked pot (a not uncommon question from reporters who went to college in the 1970s).

Surprisingly, Bayh admitted his experimentation to a Statehouse reporter doing a freelance article for a monthly magazine. Before the ink was dry in the notepad, Bayh’s camp convened a fast-track news conference.

“I tried it. I did not like it. I never tried it again. It was a mistake I made when I was 18.” As one writer pointed out, the potential fallout to his political career was “… one voters seemed to dismiss.” The revelation barely makes a footnote in Bayh’s political history (as is the same story for other political notables who “tried” pot but apologized for illegal drug use).

You can afford to take a breath if you find yourself in a potential crisis situation, just don’t let 24 hours go by (much less years) without thinking through the potential fallout and how it might play out.

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