Social Media in Crisis Communication: The Lance Armstrong Saga

Social Media in Crisis Communication: The Lance Armstrong Saga

Maria Hopwood (Sports Management Worldwide, USA) and Hamish McLean (Griffith University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0559-4.ch003
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Abstract

Social media engagement is changing the relational dynamic between organizations - and individuals - and their publics. This is particularly evident in the world of elite sport where the market value of an elite athlete is measured by their public reputation which is pinned on healthy relationships with stakeholders, such as fellow athletes, team managers, coaches and, importantly, fans (Hopwood 2007). In fact, social media analysts have attributed much of Twitter's growth to early adopters in the sports world. As a continually expanding global business, sport has to grapple with the challenges of how to harness this uncontrolled medium to best advantage, particularly in times of crisis. This chapter examines the bond between fans and sport in the context of social media in order to examine how this relationship could foster forgiveness for elite athletes who confess to transgressions, thus having enduring implications for the athlete's sport and sport business generally.
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Introduction

Social media – particularly the micro-blog Twitter – has provided sports fans with the opportunity to fulfil the eternal ambition of getting closer to their idols. This is particularly important in the world of elite sport where the market value of an elite athlete is measured by their public reputation which is pinned on healthy relationships with stakeholders, such as fellow athletes, team managers, coaches and, importantly, fans (Hopwood 2007). There are numerous examples, however, of athletes and sports organizations finding, to their sometimes heavy reputational and image cost, that strict protocols for social media usage need to be embedded at all levels of the organization, thus making it not quite the open access communication channel for which fans might have hoped. Managing a crisis scenario which is played out in the full glare of social media is a real and present challenge for organizations. It is therefore essential that a comprehensive crisis communications management strategy is in place at all times.

Drawing on the case of cyclist Lance Armstrong who, despite a large following, turned his back on social media and opted to confess on American prime time television via the channel of a much publicized interview with Oprah Winfrey, the authors’ research focusses on how the convergence of social and traditional media is impacting the sport/fan relationship. The findings of this research are therefore of relevance to anyone with an interest in the business of sport and social media relationship management within the wider public relations context.

This chapter focusses on the strategic and theoretical elements of crisis communication, as utilized by organizations generally, and attempts to demonstrate their application to social media crisis communication through the case study of Lance Armstrong’s confession to doping on the Oprah Winfrey Show in January 2013. The objective for our research is to highlight the challenges faced by individuals and organizations of relationship management during a crisis when it is played out via social media. The reason for focusing on Lance Armstrong is that he is a prolific Twitter user and strategically used this medium as a way of reinforcing his web of deceit. He built up a global empire of supporters who have been devastated by his fall from grace and who continue, even two years after the confession, to share their grief and disappointment on Twitter. Though the case study is clearly sports business related, the authors’ findings are applicable to organization communication within the wider context. The chapter considers how sports fans and elite athletes use social media and the associated pitfalls. As both authors’ specialism is public relations, there is a discussion on social media relationship and reputation management and the use of social media in a crisis situation, referencing crisis communication literature. The Lance Armstrong case study is presented and its implications considered both within sport and the wider business context.

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