LIAR, LIAR, SPEEDOS ON FIRE - LESSON IN CRISIS PR

by Alicia Simpson

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Olympian is using public relations to recover after ‘Liar, Liar Speedos on Fire’ reputational meltdown

Ryan_Lochte_at_2013_ZajacSHAMED Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte is currently trying to quickstep his way back into public favour – after his Rio shenanigans left his profile in tatters. Crisis PR was sorely required.

Here in the UK stories about the decorated American swimmer may have dropped off the news agenda after he was revealed to have lied about being held up at gunpoint in the Brazilian city.

But on his home turf his reputational rehabilitation is in full swing – with his best hope of recovery coming from his participation in the Strictly-style telly show, Dancing With The Stars.

Lochte is desperately courting the kind of agreeable headlines that will put him in a more positive light with the public, even turning up for filming of the show with armfuls of freshly made pizza to win over the waiting paparazzi.

We’d be willing to bet big time that in PR terms now, just about everything he does now will be more carefully choreographed than the waltzes, cha-chas and foxtrots he’ll be performing in front of millions of TV viewers.

It will be a long, painful route back. But with the right advice, the dedication to knuckle down and a willingness to accept that he will have to tread water for a considerable time, Lochte should be able to rebuild his reputation.

However, it’s a pity he didn’t take crisis PR advice sooner – before his world imploded after a night out with other members of the US Swimming Team in Rio.


Crisis Media AlarmCrisis in a time of smart phones. Read about how to always be prepared for a crisis, at a time when everyone is a journalist


ICYMI, the whole saga started when the 12-time Olympic medallist claimed that he and his teammates James Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger had been robbed at gunpoint by thieves posing as armed police.

In reality, they had been more than a little tipsy and, upon realising that the gas station at which they had pulled over had no toilet, urinated outside and then damaged a door, before being charged and told to leave by security guards.

Lochte then backtracked on his claims, and admitted he had, while still drunk, “left details out” and “over-exaggerated some parts of the story”. He finally gave a truthful version of events during a televised interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer – when he finally apologised to the people of Brazil, eight days after the original story broke.

What’s that old saying about giving ‘too little, too late’? Despite eventually accepting “full responsibility” for what happened in Rio, the disgraced athlete’s career took a series of severe financial hits. Within a few hours he lost four major sponsors, with Speedo USA, Ralph Lauren, mattress company Airweave and hair removal company Syneron-Candela all cutting ties.

Speedo was quick to release its statement and, in a pivotal move, announced it would be donating the $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to Save the Children’s Brazilian operation. A stroke of PR genius for the brand, but a brutal blow to the already reeling swimmer.

Just how did Lochte get it so wrong?

His first mistake – and one that we can certainly all relate to and have most definitely been reprimanded for many a time throughout our youth – is that, according to reports, he lied to his mother.

I get it, Ryan, I do. To once save my poor mum the unnecessary heartbreak, I promised her the packet of Marlboro Lights she’d unwittingly discovered under my bed were 100% not mine.  I could have done what Lochte did and kept fibbing.

But it was too obvious. They were under my bed and the guilt was written all over my face.  So I admitted it. She was angry, of course, but I avoided the inevitable weeks of her questioning the validity of my statement and therefore the likelihood of the (feeble) excuse blowing up in my face.

At the crucial moment when he had a choice between sinking or swimming, Lochte ignored the first and most important rule of crisis comms – admit accountability. He then pushed himself further into the murky depths by giving continued and conflicting statements – all of which served to stoke up the story.

Such approaches rarely end well and the swimmer’s antics led to an inevitable drip- drip of further revelations, which fuelled the international media with new revelation after new revelation leaking out to make him look progressively worse and worse.

For the circling media vultures, starving for their next bite of delicious gossip, Lochte served himself up on a plate. So what should he have done to keep his head above the water? There are a few basic rules when it comes to crisis management and Lochte bypassed every one of them:

  • Accept responsibility immediately
  • Acknowledge and apologise empathetically to those affected by the wrongdoing
  • Explain what is being done to address the problem to allow everyone to move on

One example of getting it right (and well worth a read) is that of renowned tennis player Maria Sharapova – who faced her PR crisis head on back in April.


Image of Sharapova with text over, "Well served crisis comm" The Sharapova response: Well-served crisis PR. When a rule change served up an unfortunate situation, read how well-timed crisis PR saved the day.


As doping allegations swirled around her, she could easily have issued a lame denial – only to have suffered a thousand damaging cuts as fresh allegations and revelations leaked out over agonising days and weeks.

Instead, Sharapova came straight out and admitted she was guilty of a doping violation, apologised to her fans and to the tennis authorities and said she would await whatever punishment the tennis authorities deemed fitting.

Though this racked up huge media coverage, the fact that she instantly owned up starved the story of oxygen and meant the story filled no more than a couple of days of the news cycle. It has since become known as the Sharapova Response within PR circles and is an approach we would highly recommend.

The same cannot be said, however, for the disgraced swimmer, who has instead been forced to pin his hopes of redemption on some fancy footwork, prompting the New York post to run the headline: “Can Ryan Lochte dance his way to redemption?”

All well and good, except that we can’t help but worry that leaving his fate in the hands of a badly shuffled cha-cha-cha may get his speedos in a twist all over again.

Your business deserves to work with PR experts who won’t sink when it comes to a crisis

At Holyrood PR we’ve got a proven track record in managing crisis and that’s what you need – an experienced and steady guiding hand.

We’d be happy to discuss creating a crisis communications plan for your business. Like all of our PR services, the pricing is totally clear – in fact, we’re one of the most transparent agencies in the UK in terms of cost.

Simply phone us on 0131 561 2244 or fill in the simple form below and we’ll get straight back to you:

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Private: Alicia Simpson

The profile and biography of public relations professional Alicia Simpson, a junior account executive with award-winning Scottish public relations agency, Holyrood PR in Edinburgh.

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