In spat with ’60 Minutes,’ Lance Armstrong scores another PR victory

If Lance Armstrong fans are waiting for “60 Minutes” to offer an on-air apology for its May 22 program focusing on the cyclist’s alleged doping use, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

A quick review of the news magazine’s recent history shows only one on-air apology, and that was for airing a program about a heroin smuggling ring that turned out to be completely fake. Even then, it took a nearly two-year investigation to determine that outside producers had faked locations and paid actors to portray drug couriers.

There’s no doubt that Tyler Hamilton portrayed on the program was actually the real cyclist, and many suspect that the professional cycling world and doping go hand-in-hand.

Still, for Armstrong and his legal and PR teams this week to demand an immediate apology is bold, and the move is already reaping benefits.

Anyone who has tried to get the media to apologize, even in the most extreme cases, knows it’s a long shot. The best-case scenario is for attorneys to take the time to blast off a letter filled with legal language assailing the media report.

In most cases, the demand letters are ignored or kept as trophies by producers or editors.

For Armstrong, the play was again a brilliant piece of media management. When the report aired, he simply responded with a straightforward tweet, saying he had never tested positive for use of performance enhancing drugs. He even put up a response website.

Now Armstrong’s team is hitting its stride by demanding that “60 Minutes” issue an on-air apology to the seven-time Tour de France winner and admit it was wrong in the broadcast report. It featured Hamilton claiming that Armstrong told him he had flunked a drug test and covered it up in 2001.

In a May 31 letter to CBS News Chairman Jeffrey Fager, Armstrong’s attorney accused CBS of reporting untrue facts:

“In the cold light of morning, your story was either extraordinarily shoddy, to the point of being reckless and unprofessional, or a vicious hit-and-run job,” Armstrong lawyer Elliot Peters wrote. “In either case, a categorical on-air apology is required.”

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, from a PR perspective, the apology request and Armstrong’s other responses to the report are working. Media outlets are lining up to report the news, some taking potshots at the venerable news magazine. They take the Armstrong angle, then plug in a generic statement by CBS, saying its story was “truthful, accurate and fair.”

In this PR volley, score another one for Team Armstrong.

(This blog post also appears on PRDaily)

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