A Positive Image
Starts With Media Training
By JEFF EISENBERG
The first time he publicly spoke about his failed drug test, Tour de France champion Floyd Landis conceded it could forever taint his reputation.
Any chance the Murrieta resident had to avert that fate may have already evaporated, according to media experts who said Landis' public relations strategy has made him appear disorganized and desperate.
"He's a lost cause," said crisis management specialist Kathleen Hessert, president of Charlotte-based Sports Media Challenge. "His defense is not credible or organized, and it doesn't seem like it's going in the same direction. Even if he proves he didn't do it, I don't think he'll ever truly clear his name."
Facing mounting evidence that he used performance-enhancing drugs during the race, Landis is fighting to prove his innocence on two fronts: He hired respected Los Angeles sports attorney Howard Jacobs to conduct his legal defense and drafted public relations consultant Michael Henson to help restore his battered image.
Henson's strategy was to have his client deliver an unfiltered message to as many viewers as possible. Landis flooded the airwaves Monday and Tuesday, appearing on all four network TV morning shows, ESPN, CNN, and NBC's "Tonight Show."
During the two-day publicity barrage, Landis reiterated that he did not break any rules and lashed out at cycling officials for their handling of his case. He even had to fend off hard-hitting questions from Jay Leno.
"We wanted to give the country a chance to see Floyd's personality," Henson said Wednesday. "Floyd has a witty, sharp sense of humor. If I have one regret, it's that I would have liked to have seen that come out more."
Any public relations boost Landis might have received, however, won't offset his previous blunders, crisis management consultants said.
Unprepared for the initial onslaught of accusations in the days after his Phonak team announced his initial drug test came back positive, Landis and his advisers admit they erred by suggesting several explanations without adequately examining lab results first.
Maybe the cortisone shots for his degenerative hip caused his elevated testosterone ratio. Or perhaps it was his thyroid medication. Or maybe he simply has naturally high levels of testosterone. Regardless, because many anti-doping experts cast doubt on the theories, Landis had to backpedal in his latest round of interviews, saying all the explanations were merely his way of defending himself.
"Had he waited until he had all the information before offering his defense, that would have been respected," said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Sierra Madre. "Instead he threw out all those explanations in public, and it came across as a desperate move. It was him against all the scientific experts, and that's not a battle he can win."
Kevin Long, president of MVP Sports Media Training, said Landis should have met with his advisers and formulated a media strategy as soon as he learned he failed a drug test. Then Long would have advised Landis to emphasize one new point per day in order to remain newsworthy yet keep his message clear.
"That's crisis communication 101," he said.
The test Landis failed was conducted after he surged back into contention during the Tour's 17th stage. An analysis of the initial sample and the backup showed elevated testosterone ratios.
The chances of Landis rehabilitating his image are slim, media experts said.
If he alters his story and admits guilt, Hessert said it may be too late for him to salvage any public sympathy. If he keeps fighting, she said it's going to be an uphill battle to win over fans weary of drug-tainted athletes.
"When you have to reverse your story in a matter of days, you have no credibility," she said. "It's too late for him to get that back."
Reach Jeff Eisenberg at 951-368-9357 or at jeisenberg@PE.com