Under investigation, Armstrong stays visible with charitable efforts

By Jim Vertuno, AP
Monday, September 20, 2010

Under investigation, Armstrong stays in public

AUSTIN, Texas — Lance Armstrong just keeps rolling along.

While prosecutors examine his past as part of a federal investigation into drug use in pro cycling, Armstrong is sticking to a relentless public schedule of charity bike rides, speeches, endorsements and meetings with policy groups.

He’s doing anything but hiding.

And that, public relations experts say, is the way to stay popular — or at least, limit the damage to his reputation — even as prosecutors present evidence to a grand jury.

“It’s all the right moves. Other athletes could learn from him” said Gene Grabowski, who guides high-profile figures through public relations crises as a senior vice president with Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications.

Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times after fighting back from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Since returning from this year’s race, which he says will be his last, he has kept his fight against the disease at the forefront of his public appearances.

Armstrong was scheduled to be in San Francisco on Monday to visit a hospital with Mayor Gavin Newsome. When a federal grand jury considering the investigation meets in Los Angeles on Wednesday, he’ll be in New York City for the Clinton Global Initiative where he’s headlining a panel on cancer in the developing world. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to be at the Clinton event later in the week.

Meantime, Armstrong is constantly updating his 2.65 million followers on Twitter with his musings on life, racing and music.

“We call it ‘brazening it out.’ You act as if there’s nothing wrong,” said George Merlis, founder of Experience Media Consulting Group. “All of these are laudable if he’s doing it for the right reason, such as fighting cancer.”

Armstrong insists there is, indeed, nothing wrong. He has always denied doping allegations that have dogged him for years. Spokesman Mark Fabiani said there’s no reason for him to back off now.

“This tax-money-wasting fishing expedition — which continues to drag up nothing but old news — was started on the word of the disgraced Floyd Landis, so there is no reason why it would distract Lance Armstrong from the vigorous work he has always done on behalf of his foundation, his sport, and his wide range of business partners,” Fabiani said.

In fact, Armstrong’s highly public schedule is nothing new.

When he first retired from cycling in 2005, he made regular appearances around the country for charity and cancer-awareness programs.

He also entered the political world. In 2007, Armstrong successfully lobbied state lawmakers to pass a $3 billion cancer research initiative. He also co-hosted televised cancer forums with several candidates for president.

Today, Armstrong still has a dedicated following, the so-called Livestrong Army enchanted by his work fighting cancer and his success on the bike. Just this weekend, a 6-year-old boy in Corpus Christi made local news by raising $150 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation selling lemonade.

And a “Support for Lance” website is appealing to the “millions of Lance Armstrong fans all over the world — it’s time that this international hero gets some support when he needs it most!” (The Armstrong camp says the cyclist is not behind the website and has not been contacted by the site’s operators.)

Armstrong’s corporate sponsors — including Nike, RadioShack Corp., 24-hour fitness and Trek bikes — have stuck with him. He recently shot a new commercial for Michelob Ultra.

Yet analysts are divided over whether Armstrong’s image is taking a hit because of the doping investigation.

Armstrong ranked about average in popularity among sports figures, according to a survey conducted by the Q Scores Co. in August and September.

“There’s no indication that his negative recognition has grown at an alarming rate, unlike other athletes like Tiger Woods, where the negatives went through the roof. He’s nowhere near that kind of disaster,” Schafer said.

But Zeta Interactive, a marketing firm that tracks looks online to see how people are being viewed, found Armstrong has fallen far from his perch as one of the most popular athletes the agency has ever tracked.

Zeta measured Armstrong at 92 percent popularity in 2008, and he was at 86 percent in July before the start of his final Tour de France. That number dropped to 51 percent in August when the federal investigation ramped up and has bumped only slightly to 55 percent in recent weeks.

“He’s flirting with 50-50,” said Zeta Interactive CEO Al DiGuido. “For someone trying to build themself as a brand, that’s not a good place to be.”

Grabowski thinks the decision to pursue Armstrong in court may depend, at least to some degree, on how well he’s able to maintain his public persona as a legitimate Tour champion and cancer fighter.

“There’s an old saying in Washington: You never kick a man when he’s up. When someone’s popular and you take him on, you’re going to lose,” Grabowski said.

Merlis isn’t so sure.

“Urine samples from France will determine that,” Merlis said, referring to the French doping agency’s offer last week to send urine samples from the 1999 tour to U.S. investigators. French sports daily L’Equipe reported in 2005 that Armstrong’s backup samples from 1999 contained EPO — a banned blood-boosting hormone. Armstrong was cleared by an independent panel.

As public as Armstrong has been, there are limits.

Because of the investigation, Armstrong’s reps said he would not be available for comment. Armstrong leaves it to Fabiani, an attorney and public relations specialist, to immediately and aggressively respond to any allegations of drug use reported in the investigation.

That’s in sharp contrast to baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, who held a long and combative news conference with reporters to deny allegations of steroid use.

“He has stayed above it all,” Grabowski said of Armstrong. “Image does count … Lance Armstrong understands that.”

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