From Bad Hair Connoisseur to Criminal: The PR Debacle of Ryan Lochte

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By: Communications & Digital Strategy committee member William Barrett

Every two years, the world comes together to watch its top tier athletes compete against each other in either the summer or winter Olympics. These games usually come coupled with numerous controversies that embarrass, entertain and sometimes just straight up baffle the international audience.

This summer’s Olympics in Rio was certainly no exception, with allegations of corruption and cheating flying around weeks before the opening ceremony began. One controversy shone out among the rest, thanks largely in part to the eye-searing platinum blonde dye one athlete chose to sport. This athlete is, of course, the United States’ once-golden boy: Ryan Lochte. Hideous hairstyling was only the beginning of Lochte’s poor decision-making that occurred in August.

Lochte gained international notoriety after lying about the events surrounding his detainment with fellow Team USA swimmers by private security following the vandalism of a gas station in Rio. The controversy began when Lochte claimed assailants carrying police badges and uniforms robbed him and his group at gunpoint. The Rio police refuted the claim and released CCTV video showing Lochte and company vandalizing the gas station after returning from a party.

However, the media had already caught wind of the situation and before the truth was revealed Lochte made several appearances before the media, which immediately shot to the front of the news given the prominence of both the athlete and crime problem that the city faced.

Lochte fled to the United States shortly after meeting with the media, as his teammates began refuting his earlier claims. The next few days resulted in a media firestorm that brought shame to the Olympics, Team USA and ultimately Lochte himself.

Ultimately, this proved a major public relations blunder for those involved. One of the biggest failures of the ordeal was on the part of Team USA and The International Olympic Committee. They allowed Lochte to address the media before all the facts were released, which allowed him to spin his own fairytale.

Speaking from a PR standpoint, the media can be your greatest asset or greatest threat, depending on how you use it. Team USA and the IOC, by allowing Lochte to speak first, made the media their enemy and were forced to fight an uphill battle for weeks.

Ideally, the organizations should have quarantined Lochte immediately following the announcement of the “robbery” and held an investigation in-house. In doing this, officials may have caught wind of the true nature of events. This would have allowed the organizations to control the story instead of play victim to it. The organizations could have taken actions earlier by collaborating with the Rio police to find the truth of the story as well as instituting punishments more quickly.

Lochte, of course, made the most glaring errors. Aside from the obvious embellishment and deception of his “take” of the event, Lochte committed the unforgivable sin of lying to the media. In the PR world, there is almost no worse action than giving false information to the media. Why? Well, the media has a knack of always uncovering the truth. Once they find they have been lied to, you lose all credibility and make a powerful enemy.

In the days following the reveal of the true events, the media was strewn with Lochte and news of his lie. He then made the mistake of not immediately apologizing, but continuing to support his story for several days. It was only after he hired a PR professional to advise him that he apologized via Instagram and later via various news outlets – though this strategy was too little, too late. Lochte was suspended from the national swimming team for 10 months, his sponsor withdrew, and he angered fans both at home and around the globe.

To summarize, Lochte, the IOC and Team USA essentially ignored several basic PR strategies throughout this incident. In a similar situation, you could follow these three easy steps:

  1. Quarantine the offender to control the flow of the story
  2. Apologize and dole out appropriate consequences ASAP
  3. DO NOT, under and circumstances, lie to the media

If these steps were followed, it’s possible this controversy would never have appeared. Instead, the damage has been done and now these parties should focus on the rebuilding effort. For Ryan Lochte, it is unclear if his career can come back from a hit like this. Michael Phelps was able to come back from a DUI and become an American hero, so it is possible. But anything can happen.


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