Honesty is the best policy!

Lance Armstrong.

Manti Te’o.

Bernie Madoff.

Aside from the fact that they are all well-known American figures, it’s not hard to guess what these three have in common. They all got caught in a lie of some sort. It affected them all differently, but ultimately damaged each of their personal brands.

Bernie Madoff was caught in a major Ponzi scheme, lying to his clients and costing a lot of people a lot of money. It cost him his personal fortune, his estate, his career and his freedom outside prison walls. Lance Armstrong was caught lying about using illegal substances to help him win the Tour de France seven times in a row – and it cost him his titles, future racing opportunities and endorsement dollars. Manti Te’o was the heartbreaking story of the 2012 college football season after his grandmother and girlfriend died in the same week…until the world found out there was no such girlfriend. Te’o is new to this group, so we have yet to determine exactly how his brand will be tarnished by the scandal.

Working in the field of public relations, my first thought when these types of scandals break is that these guys’ publicists won’t be sleeping much for a while. My second thought is how I would handle it.

If you’ve ever dealt with a crisis situation like this, you know that there should always be a PR practitioner at the table. With that in mind, I would advise the following:

  1. Don’t do wrong or unethical things in the first place.

It’s too late for Lance Armstrong. He made poor choices for way too long to have them just disappear now. But it’s not too late for most people – companies or individuals. If something is wrong, make it right. When faced with a potentially damaging situation, take the high road. Don’t let yourself get caught up in scandals that could ruin lives (as Madoff did) or ruin your career or brand (like Armstrong or Te’o).

If you’re unsure of whether you’re being confronted with an ethical situation, PRSA has a handy Code of Ethics available to help identify and overcome those situations, as do many other professional organizations.

  1. If you find yourself caught up in a situation like this, honesty is the best policy.

I watched a segment on The Today Show a few weeks ago in which Star Jones recommended, from a legal standpoint, that Lance Armstrong never admit to doping. In her eyes, it would severely damage his personal brand and therefore his ability to make money from future endorsements, speaking engagements or even future competitions. But Star Jones is a lawyer, not a PR practitioner. Public relations is all about building trust and building a strong personal brand no matter what. With all Armstrong’s former teammates saying he used illegal substances, it became increasingly difficult for him to convince anyone that he was telling the truth.

The same could be said of Manti Te’o. Today the official statement from the Te’o family and from Notre Dame is that Te’o was the victim of a cruel prank. The rest of the world is still confused. Even according to official statements, Te’o knew about the hoax on Dec. 6, yet he still spoke about the girl two days later at the Heisman ceremony. Without the whole truth, people will think the worst no matter what.

  1. Make your brand a priority.

This is true in any situation, not just those that involve a lie. In Lance Armstrong’s case, he has been an important advocate for the cancer community. A close friend of mine lives in Austin, Texas – where Livestrong is headquartered. She recently beat lymphoma and is very supportive of the Livestrong organization separate from Armstrong. In her blog, she acknowledges his mistakes but hopes that the charity – which has since severed ties with Armstrong – continues to thrive and support cancer survivors.

Bernie Madoff can, of course, never recover from his lie. He is serving his prison sentence for a variety of felonies related to his Ponzi scheme. In Madoff’s case, he owned his company, which went under with him. Had he been part of a larger bank or investment group with the strength to survive such a scandal, he likely would have been a casualty of the company’s rebuilding.

In Manti Te’o’s case, he may overcome this, depending on whether he tells the whole truth before it’s too late. There is still time before the NFL draft, for which he was previously projected to be a first-round pick. I’ll be watching the news for more information, and will be interested to see how the NFL considers his personal brand along with his talents as a player.

Have any thoughts about this blog? Leave it in the comments and we can discuss it there.