The Three Fs of Crisis Communications

Posted by Kassy Perry

U.S. Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are at the center of attention during the Summer Olympic Games, but their future net worth depends on corporate sponsors and speaking gigs once the chlorinated pool water on their speedos has dried. By now everyone on the planet has heard of Ryan Lochte’s actions in Rio after a night of celebrating with his teammates, and the fallout could have been handled in a way that did not impact the $16 million worth of Speedo and Ralph Lauren paychecks in his near future. What should have been an immature, youthful act of stupidity turned into a full scale Fukushima-style meltdown when Ryan not only “over-exaggerated” the events of the evening, in (I am hoping) his words, but he went out of his way to tell NBC’s Billy Bush a concocted “made for TV story” and then doubled down in an interview with Matt Lauer. At that point, he apparently got scared with the magnitude of his “over-exaggeration” and got out of town leaving his teammates to clean up the mess with the media, the IOC and the Brazilian police. What a teammate. Seriously?

His PR team and lawyers back home clearly advised Lochte to engage in the 3 Fs of Crisis Management: If you Foul up, Fess up and then Fix it. They told him to die his hair back to a normal Happy Days “boy next door” color and scheduled an interview with a friendly reporter, Matt Lauer, once his teammates had paid the bill for the destruction of private property and were safely on their way home. All good. Yet, Lochte couldn’t just fess up and make it right and then donate to an appropriate charity to heal the cracked public perception. He had to Fonzie-like, stutter repeatedly, unable to simply say, “I’m wrong.” His term was he “over-exaggerated” the actions of the evening. Not only did he butcher the English language, but he didn’t exaggerate, he fabricated. And that F is NOT part of a successful World Wide Apology Tour.

America loves a comeback. We embrace celebrities who trip and fall, and then make good and rise again. Look at Phelps, who had a series of very public stumbles four years ago. But this swimmer either isn’t listening to his PR team or is unwilling to do so. And there really is only so much you can do as a crisis expert if the client isn’t willing to make good when he’s done wrong. Young Ryan Lochte will remain in Olympic Gold Medal Icon Michael Phelps’ shadow for eternity if he insists on swimming upstream, refusing to listen to those who have expertise he doesn’t have. Arrogance is a dangerous thing.