August 26, 2016

What Drove Ryan Lochte to Sink instead of Swim in Rio?

If you asked anyone during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games who would be the most talked about U.S. athlete come the end of the games, we can guarantee you no one would’ve answered Ryan Lochte.

Yet, even with Michael Phelps swimming his final Olympic event, winning more gold medals than any other athlete in history, the worldwide stage that is the Olympics belonged to Ryan Lochte. And as everyone knows, the curtain came down on that stage with international criticism, disgrace and controversy.

It’s a vast understatement to say it is “a shame” that the Olympics were overshadowed by the incident that occurred at a gas station in Rio involving Lochte and a few of his teammates. As PR and branding professionals, we see the events in Rio as a powerful lesson in how destructive a lack of transparency can be, especially when it comes from someone like Lochte, who is in the spotlight as a role model and a representative of brands, charities and a country.

Because of the status he holds, Lochte’s lack of transparency from the start—not to mention his continual need to make excuses for fabricating the story of what happened—destroyed much more than his reputation. The accomplishments of the entire U.S. swim team were tainted by Lochte’s actions, which also detracted from the victories of all U.S. Olympians, delivered a hit to the pride of Americans, cast an international shadow on the U.S., left several sponsors without a brand icon, possibly took Los Angeles out of the running to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, embroiled Brazil in an ugly situation … and the impact goes on and on.

Some may acknowledge that Lochte and his teammates were drinking, and that they acted vulgarly and destroyed property. But was there really anything they could have done to restore their reputations at that point?

Yes. Lochte should have taken a page from the book of his teammate Michael Phelps, who dealt with his own misstep. Immediately after his now-well-known “bong video” went public, Phelps took ownership of his actions, admitted his immaturity and lack of responsibility, and apologized sincerely with no excuses. Phelps emerged from the incident with most Americans—as well as sponsors—continuing to stand by him.

As a celebrity, Lochte also should have been more aware of the world around him. Again, the Phelps video offers a poignant example that, in this age of instant communications and social sharing, no place, no action, no statement is sacred. Cameras are everywhere, and people are less inhibited than ever to use them for fun, legal action, retribution or “just in case”—especially when a public figure is the subject.

The Rio incident offers a number of takeaways that can be beneficial for almost any business or organization in a crisis situation:

  1. Be transparent. Be upfront from the start. Half-truths and lies will eventually come out, and one of the worst images in a crisis is that of a flip-flopper or backtracker.
  2. Own it. No matter what was done, if you or your company did it, take responsibility. Admit the faults that are yours, apologize to those that were harmed by your actions (never make it “about you”) and avoid making excuses.
  3. Respond with speed. For any leading figure, influencer or spokesperson, the greater your status, the more swiftly and harder the impact of your actions will hit. You have to be prepared to respond with equal speed.
  4. Stay smart. Never sacrifice speed for intelligence. Remember, the minute you say something, it can be out on social media permanently—and quickly follow in traditional media channels. Before saying or typing a word, think every statement through thoroughly and strategically.