Crafting a PR Strategy to Rescue Olympian Ryan Lochte

Ryan Lochte headshot

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Americans just witnessed the downfall of a gold medal-winning swimmer’s reputation in less than a week’s time. It appears Ryan Lochte brought much of it on himself. Public relations professionals are talented at helping public figures manage their image and mitigate problems as they arise, but the shit gets real when the client sparks an “international crisis” all by himself. Can PR really help at that point?

What did Ryan Lochte do?

In case you have been hiding under a rock or hate watching the Olympics, here’s a quick synopsis:

Sunday, August 14: Ryan Lochte and three other swimmers claimed they were robbed at gunpoint. Lochte was the first of the group to speak publicly. At one point, Lochte told NBC News a gun was pointed at his head. The headlines ensued.

Wednesday, August 17: Lochte stuck to his story (with a few alterations) when he was interviewed by the Today Show’s Matt Lauer. He was back in the U.S., but that day two of the swimmers were pulled off a plane, the passports of the other swimmers were being held and the men were questioned.

Thursday, August 18: Rio police announced Lochte lied in a publicized press conference. They released surveillance video supporting their claim. Plus, two of the swimmers who were with him that night corroborated the police’s story: they were not robbed. The police account said the men vandalized part of a gas station and a security guard told them they couldn’t leave until they paid for the damage they caused. Rio police say a gun was shown to keep them from leaving without paying. Four days after his first claim of the robbery and just hours after the Rio police announcement, Lochte hired a PR agency (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Lochte’s PR Don’ts

What he did: From August 14-17, Lochte tried to stick to his story, knowing what he said was a lie.

What he should have done: Of course he shouldn’t have lied to begin with, but this is the reality he’s chosen to deal with. As such, he should have enlisted public relations help earlier. Unlike some PR crises, Lochte had all of the information of what happened that night. He was not in a situation where he could be blindsided by new information. He should have anticipated how serious this would become and apologized much sooner. It likely wouldn’t have become as big as it did.

What he did: Lochte left the country before his other teammates who were with him that night. Whether he had a prescheduled flight out of the country on Tuesday, August 16 or he was trying to escape the country as quickly as possible doesn’t matter. Whatever his motive, it appeared he abandoned his teammates during a time of crisis, which hurts his reputation.

What he should have done: As the person with the highest public profile of the four swimmers, he should have stayed until all of his teammates could leave. Instead, it left his teammates caught on camera doing a “perp walk” of sorts as they were escorted off their plane bound for the U.S. That made them and Lochte look bad.

What he did: He appeared to leverage the concerns about crime in Rio to position himself as a victim. Who would question Lochte after so much pre-Olympics coverage about criminal activity and generally unsettled conditions in Rio?

What he should have done: Again, aside from never telling the lie in the first place, he should have backed off of this story right away. For Lochte to so publicly come out and say he and his teammates were robbed on the streets of Rio, just made for bigger headlines. How could he think the truth wouldn’t come out?


Saving Lochte From Himself

After the Rio police news conference on Thursday, Lochte hired a top crisis public relations “guru” to help him out of his mess. Everything changed in the next 48 hours.

By Saturday night, we saw a different Ryan Lochte. In two interviews he apologized for what happened. One interview was again with Matt Lauer and aired in primetime during Olympic coverage. The other interview aired on Brazil’s largest TV network, Globo TV.

The purpose of these appearances was to paint Lochte in a different light. His PR reps didn’t want to lead with the messy (whitish-greenish-grayish?) haired Lochte who people were now equating with partying and vandalism. So, they switched it up.

First, they set the tone:

His hair was dyed back to a natural brown. Lochte put on a nice button-down shirt and was seated in a calm, warm living room-like atmosphere.

Then, they worked on three key parts of his message which you saw in the second Lauer interview:

  1. He came clean. He admitted he had too much to drink and over-exaggerated his story. He admitted to causing damage at the gas station.
  2. He apologized to his teammates, the Olympics, Rio and Brazil for creating this international incident. He said he was acting immature and stupid. He admitted he was embarrassed by the whole thing.
  3. He stayed on message. Multiple times during the interview he said he was intoxicated and over-exaggerated the incidents that happened that night. He shouldered the blame.

Did it work? Maybe a little yes, but mostly no. There is only so much magic a PR professional can do when a client has created an incident surrounding one of the biggest events in the world, and it was all based on a lie.

The goal was to push this story down, save Lochte’s reputation and, hopefully, keep his sponsors from fleeing. Though the apology de-escalated the situation a bit, it wasn’t enough to keep sponsors from distancing themselves from Lochte faster than Michael Phelps’ butterfly stroke. By Monday, $6 million of Lochte’s sponsorship money was gone.

Things appear to have calmed down in the days since. Most recently, USA Today reported Lochte is slated to appear on Dancing with the Stars (a deal that was made before his Rio incident), although the official announcement has not yet been made. The article also cleared up Rio police’s claim that the four men damaged a bathroom at the gas station. The article states police didn’t even ask the swimmers about the bathroom. The damage the men actually did was tearing down a poster. Lochte’s camp also says they have other preliminary inquires from potential new sponsors.

The takeaway message here? Don’t lie — toast can never be bread again. But, if you’re the kind of person who can’t resist lying, don’t wait until your situation is so messed up that you need public relations help to get out of it. If you are aware of a possible crisis, engage with your PR professional as soon as you can. By doing that, hopefully, you might maintain control of your story.

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