Another Speedo has dropped on Ryan Lochte, quite literally, as the swim apparel manufacturer joined others in abandoning its sponsorship of the embattled Olympian—leaving him exposed for more to follow (in fact, he may only have one sponsor left.) Swimming as a career is tough enough—but to do so without lucrative endorsement deals makes it nearly impossible.
Lochte can recover from this incident, but he must first turn the growing tide of negative public opinion around. He must seek forgiveness— not just for a broken bathroom, but for all his actions and statements following the incident.
The first step in receiving forgiveness is asking for it. In order to ask for forgiveness you must first show, and say, that you are sorry. To be effective, an apology must have two critical elements—it must be genuine and it must be complete. We have yet to see either from Lochte, and until we do, he can expect even more bad news to follow.
Apologies that are qualified, have conditions, or are more like explanations will always fall flat. We advise clients often that “if you are explaining you are losing”—sound counsel in any situation—even more so when expressing remorse.
Anyone that has ever argued with a spouse, parent, or sibling knows that apologies have to be sincere. Even my kindergartner can say he is sorry—like he really means it—because he understands sincerity cannot be faked no matter how hard one may try.
To say Lochte has made some mistakes navigating the waters in the communications crisis following the Brazilian gas station incident is an understatement. The botched apologies, explanations, interviews, tweets, and other communications have only made things worse for him, his teammates, and even the reputation of the entire U.S. Olympic team. Some have argued that the incident may be a factor in denying Los Angeles the chance to host the 2024 Olympics.
This latest incident shows how bad things can get when there is what the sheriff in Cool Hand Luke describes so aptly as “a failure to communicate.” There have been many athletes, politicians, and business leaders that have been in similar situations and dug themselves in deeper—but others manage to remerge (sometimes stronger than ever) by effectively communicating. So, what should Lochte do?
1. Offer a sincere apology. Lochte should acknowledge all the pain caused by this incident and offer a genuine and complete apology for it. He should give this apology some thought and reflection. It should be delivered via video, looking directly at the camera, with no cut-aways or editing involved. It should be his final word on the matter. After the complete apology there is nothing more to say. If he wants to use the LEVICK studio and teleprompter, we are happy to assist.
2. Have a new message/mission for others. It will be a long time before Lochte can escape questions about the incident and the botched response. When asked these anticipated questions, he should revert back to the original apology, but then bridge to a more positive message about anything other than the incident.
3. Work to help other Olympians. There are many stories the media were forced to ignore as a result of covering the ever changing Lochte story. Lochte should help them tell their stories too. He has lots of eyes on his social media properties, maybe he should focus on the accomplishments of others and shine a positive light there. There may be some resistance and of course he should clear it with the other athletes first—but this action is another step in communicating remorse and illustrating it with action.
4. Get involved with charity. While corporate sponsors are worried about their damaged brands by associating with Lochte, a charity may be more forgiving (following the apology.) Lochte would be served well by associating with a well-regarded charitable endeavor, one with a positive brand that will further benefit him.
5. Focus on swimming/next career move. There is no doubting Lochte’s talent. Unfortunately, the Brazil incident and the “cover up” distracted everyone away from what it is truly good at. Everyone admires talent. The more Lochte can focus on swimming the more this event will be a distant memory for him. If this is the end of his swimming career, then a “what’s next” message is certainly in order.
To let one incident allow us to cloud the image of someone’s character is fundamentally unfair. Yet we have seen lots of stone throwing at Lochte based not on the incident, but his actions following. It isn’t too late for him to act. I hope he dives right in and begins reflecting and scripting that sincere, genuine, and complete video apology.