By Rick Kelly
Today, and probably for many days ahead, he might have trouble finding someone to buy him a cup of coffee. His road to the future, bright and promising when he left for a night on the town in Rio de Janeiro a week ago Saturday, turned into the Highway to Hell early the next morning when he and some fellow swimmers took an ill-fated restroom break while returning to the Olympic Village.
While some details remain unclear, most people are familiar with the basics of the case: a group including Lochte and three fellow swimmers partied, got drunk, vandalized a gas station, paid about $50 to security guards when confronted, and reported it as a robbery. Lochte continued the charade through interviews and social media on Sunday and returned to the U.S. on Tuesday.
The story unraveled as Brazilian officials reviewed surveillance video (note to everyone: always assume there will be surveillance video), and a judge detained Lochte’s teammates as they tried to leave the country on Wednesday. By Thursday, Lochte’s mates had rolled on him, the surveillance video was released to the news media, and Rio police held a news conference to say the swimmers had lied about the robbery. Lochte maintained radio silence for nearly an entire day.
Finally, on Friday, he posted an “apology” on Instagram “for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning.” He went on to describe how traumatic it is to be out late in a foreign country where there is a language barrier, and have a gun pointed at him. He said the reason he waited to post the apology was in order to confirm that his teammates were being allowed to leave, an assertion that was hooted down for most of the day on sports talk radio. He said he had “learned some valuable lessons.”
Regular readers of our crisis management posts know there are several standard steps one must take in order to rebuild a reputation. Redemption begins with being genuinely remorseful. Apologize, unconditionally and repeatedly. Accept responsibility. His apology – you can read the whole thing here – falls well short of that, particularly after perpetuating the charade as he did.
“Not being more careful and candid” is what we in the communication biz call “weasel wording.” He lied, he knew he lied, he perpetuated the lie, he did not acknowledge it, he did not take responsibility for it and he did not apologize for it.
Beyond an apology, he needs to demonstrate over time that he has changed his behavior. It’s impossible to do that without taking ownership of the transgression or transgressions in the first place. The longer it takes, the more difficult it is to do.
It didn’t take long for shoes to begin dropping. On Monday, Lochte lost all four of his major sponsors – Speedo USA, Ralph Lauren, hair removal company Syneron Candela and Japanese mattress maker Airweave.
In Lochte’s case, his lies were hurtful to the reputation of an entire country, and to the pride of its people. That will make his recovery more difficult. Those of us who celebrated his swimming success a few days earlier feel ashamed – and genuinely sorry. And we won’t be buying him a cup of coffee anytime soon.
Rick Kelly is Triad’s vice president for strategic communications and directs the crisis management practice.