Much has been said about Lance Armstrong lately. Not much has been said by Lance Armstrong, himself.
It used to be easy to lay low, even if you were a celebrity. But, in the world of the real-time Web, mobile devices, Twitter, Facebook updates, YouTube videos and the like, what once was a brand's most powerful tool to communicate directly with consumers, suddenly becomes its worst nightmare. Last Friday night, Armstrong took the stage at Livestrong's 15th anniversary event. Many know Livestrong (Armstrong's foundation to help battle cancer) for the 2004 launch of the Livestrong bracelet. Over eighty million bands have been sold and the Livestrong foundation has raised around $500 million to battle cancer. Lance, a cancer survivor, is currently battling for his professional life amidst a damaging report issued by the U.S. Anti-Doping agency regarding Armstrong's alleged use of illegal substances in his victory of seven Tour de France's (which were stripped from him on Monday). Major sponsors like Nike, Anheuser-Busch and Oakley have already dropped Armstrong, and he has already stepped down as Chairman of Livestrong as the charity wiggles its way to separate itself from Armstrong. At the anniversary celebration, he did not directly address the claims of the USADA and simply said that it has been a "difficult couple of weeks."
The silence online is deafening.
Due to the rise of social media, consumers have an expectation that companies will not only respond to their needs, but become active participants in the global community. Because of high profile customer service issues (think Dell Hell or United Breaks Guitars), there is tremendous pressure on brands to not only act like human beings, but to be responsive and friendly in ways that customer service has never seen before. Upon a recent trip to Montreal, Lance tweeted out an invite for people to meet him for a run. Hundreds of people showed up (along with the local news crews). Suddenly, Armstrong's Twitter feed is nothing but digital crickets and virtual tumbleweeds. He hasn't sent out a message since October 12th. Legal experts will tell us that Armstrong must be careful. There are rumors of both civil and criminal lawsuits that could be filed against him, so anything he says can - and will - be used against him in a court of law, but what about the court of public opinion? Unfortunately, social media is not a one-way street. If you participate, you're participating. You can't just do it when things are good and ignore it when things are bad... and that can be a big challenge for some. It's not a channel of convenience.
Be open. Be honest.
Armstrong's current situation could well become the social media case study to end all social media case studies. How does a brand (and, make no mistake about it, Lance Armstrong is a big and powerful brand), straddle between the challenge of traditional corporate communications as a closed entity that is cautious of every consonant of content that they publish due to regulation, public/internal policies and more, balance with the creature of social media where there is an expectation of transparency, honesty and immediate feedback? We can't expect Armstrong's side of the story via Twitter, but we can imagine how difficult it must be for him to have the power to tell his story, directly to those who care, and instead, he is choosing silence or his lawyers have him on lock down.
Transparency tells the story.
As the world waits for Lance to come forward (and rest assured, there are a team of corporate communications experts who are currently working with Armstrong and his legal counsel on how to best do this), businesses can watch and learn plenty from the sudden social media blackout that is the Lance Armstrong brand. When things are good, social media was Armstrong's best friend, but went things went south, it suddenly became the bane of his existence. It is both his silence mixed with a very vocal public (don't believe me, just do a search on Twitter or Facebook for the term, "Lance Armstrong") that is defining his brand (whether he likes it or not). This digital experience is less about his contributions to fighting cancer (which have been incredible) or his innocence/guilt on a bike (which is now being formalized). Now, it's about the digital relationships that Armstrong has been fostering. It's a lesson that every business needs to look at when it comes to how they communicate and connect with consumers in these fascinating times. Suddenly, Armstrong is ignoring the millions of people that he so readily embraced before. These people feel his silence and see it as an admission of guilt and, in return, this story acts as a reminder that as good as social media is when you have something to promote, it must be a equally powerful ally when things go south.
People want to know his story from him. They no longer want to read it as a press release. Armstrong is going to have figure this one out... fast.
The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure.