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Lance's Confession Will Work, to a Point

Confession may be good for the soul, but it's usually not a great career move as any devotee of "Law and Order" will tell you. The confessors usually get hauled off to prison.

Maybe Lance Armstrong will be the exception to the rule and certainly prison isn't in his future, but in the real world of crisis management, reputations and careers are not easily restored by belated confessions, no matter how sincere. And while every case is different (For example, Tiger Woods did not cheat competitors out of prize money or alter the outcomes of tournaments), Armstrong's mendacity and corruption are on historic levels. He didn't just cheat, he denied it for years, he sued a newspaper - The London Times - that exposed his cheating, he destroyed the careers of old friends, and he organized a cover up of epic proportions. Tiger may be a reprobate, but he didn't leave dozens of lives in shambles.

I've been listening to the Armstrong watchers and experts that have been making the cable news rounds in the last couple of days. Most say Armstrong is brilliant and strategic, a consummate planner with CEO-type skills for organization and execution.

So what is he up to with the high drama of an Oprah interview? What's his calculation of the endgame?

Here's how I see it. On the costs side of the ledger, Armstrong is confirming that he is the greatest cheat in sports history. He is opening himself up to lawsuits from sponsors, competitors and the dozens of people whom he smeared as "liars" for telling the truth about his doping. From his worst critics, he will get nothing but more contempt and hatred.

On the other side of the balance sheet, he may eventually get to compete in bike races and triathlons if he comes clean. And maybe there will be some fans that will forgive him. At some point, he can be part of Livestrong again, the cancer-fighting charity he founded. And maybe that's all he wants.  

This demonstrates why scandal management isn't so black and white. More often than not, companies, sports figures and institutions that have done wrong have very limited goals and it's usually not full restoration of reputation or something close to redemption. Redemption is for the falsely accused, not the rightly accused. The goals of scandal management are to stay out of jail, get out of the news, keep some money, don't lose your home, and maybe in Armstrong's case, get back to what he loves doing, competing.

This may be achievable. The World Anti-Doping Agency has said that a confession from Armstrong is a minimum requirement for reconsidering the ban on competition the agency imposed. Of course, going on Oprah is not quite the confession they are looking for.

Maybe critics would say the cost to Armstrong is not worth the benefits. But  Armstrong has always been his own man, and if dealing with lawsuits and accepting history's condemnation in order to compete in bike races and triathlons floats his boat, then as a crisis manager, who am I to tell him differently?  

Of course, the success of strategy is in the execution. Will there be more interviews coming? Will he go before the WADA and make a formal confession under oath? Will he be giving back prize money? And on the superficial level, will he come across as sincere or a cynic. 

My guess is that within the limited goals of this strategy, Armstrong will pull it off. For better or worse, his personal history demonstrates that he gets what he wants and that he has the personal attributes to execute a tricky strategy.   

However, I don't predict a fairy-tale ending where the aging athlete (Armstrong is 41) redeems himself by winning through clean competition to the applause of adoring fans. George Foreman he's not. Foreman left boxing a bitter and angry man and came back a God-fearing, lovable middle-aged father who won the heavyweight crown back. Getting back to the very top doesn't seem likely for Armstrong. And a personality transplant like Foreman apparently had isn't in the cards either.

But crisis management is always about making the best of a bad situation. That Armstrong can do. 

Steven Schlein, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis communications professional, has more than 25 years of experience in politics and public relations. He can be reached at stevenschlein@yahoo.com.

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