The Web is awash in stories and speculation about Lance Armstrong, his use of performance-enhancing drugs, and what that meant – and means – for the sport of cycling. I’m beyond caring about the cycling aspect, as it seems that abuse of illegal substances was rife, and the sport, I can only hope, is running relatively cleanly these days (the Tour de France remains one of the more gripping annual sports events I catch on television every year). What interests me more is Armstrong’s relationship to the Livestrong foundation, how people react to its frontman’s fall, how it moves on, and what it means for any organization that relies on an individual to reflect its public persona.
One of the big decisions companies make in terms of social media is whether the “voice” of the brand should be embodied in an individual, or be more corporate. The example of Lance Armstrong, though it goes well beyond a social media presence for Livestrong, represents the fears companies have: will identifying with an individual bite us in the butt down the line? Most likely, the “butt-bite” comes in the form of a person simply leaving the company. The spokesperson having very public legal and ethical problems is bigger, but doesn’t necessarily change the core problem. In either case, companies can take a few steps to make sure they are in front of this and can survive:
- Take advantage of personality or celebrity, but be bigger than your spokesperson: In the case of Livestrong, the appeal of fighting cancer, and the relative lack of controversy in the foundation’s fight against cancer work in its favor. Fans are either willing to forgive Lance Armstrong in the name of fighting cancer, or are simply separate the cause from the man. Livestrong has had time to prepare, and has done a fair job of making that separation. There may be collateral damage from being associated with Lance Armstrong the Cheater, but nothing compared to the benefits originally associated with Lance Armstrong the White Knight and cancer patient. Companies need to establish their voice in terms of the company itself and its services or products, with the spokesperson providing a benefit, but not being the entire draw. Take the value, but make the person replaceable, and be prepared to do so.
- Have a transition plan: Who is taking over if your spokesperson leaves? Internally, there are HR processes (changing access and passwords, re-designing your online presence to reflect a new spokesperson, etc). Externally, you need to let the new spokesperson be themselves without changing the brand message. (I mentioned this in a previous post, comparing the transition to M*A*S*H switching from Trapper John to BJ).
- Treat the transition with proper proportion and perspective: LAnce Armstrong? Livestrong needs to make a statement relative to his recent admissions, and it did. Johnny spokesperson? It depends/. Most likely, you don’t need to make a big deal of it. But you do need to be able to answer, forthrightly, questions about a slight change in voice – reassuring your audience and customers, making sure that your messages remain consistent, and that your value remains clear.
Has Livestrong done all this? I think so. They may have been taken by surprise at some early point, but they have had time to re-assert their independent identity. What is your transition plan for spokespeople?