When former cycling champion Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping on Oprah in January, Darden professor Erika Hayes James saw a teachable moment.
“I was watching the interview, and I kept thinking about this organization he founded, and the implications for it being so connected to Lance Armstrong,” said James, whose academic focus is on crisis leadership.
She joined Darden researcher Jenny Mead in piecing together the facts for a case study. Since it was published earlier this summer, the report has garnered a lot of media attention, including a writeup in the Washington Post’s Case in Point column. It sets up the multi-million-dollar question facing the nonprofit: Can Livestrong untether its identity from its fallen founder and the bad press he’s generated?
For one local reporter, the combination of issues—a media storm centered on a cancer organization—hit close to home. Newsplex anchor Chris Stover was diagnosed at 16 with Hodgkins lymphoma, and underwent four months of chemo. “I left for Christmas break and I had hair, and I came back and I was bald,” he said.
But weird as it sounds, said Stover, now 26, that time in his life was a positive one, because he found himself wrapped up in a powerfully supportive community of survivors. That’s part of why he rarely takes off the yellow silicone bracelet he got in high school. It’s also why he stayed up late one night in January penning an impassioned response to a question on CNN’s iReport: Now that Armstrong has admitted to doping, will you still wear your Livestrong band?
His response got thousands of views online, and was shared over and over on Facebook. “To me, this band I’ve worn for more than eight years doesn’t stand for cycling, for doping, for honesty, for dishonesty, for shame or for Lance Armstrong,” he wrote. “It stands for strength, for courage, for fearlessness, for pride and for life.”
As a journalist, Stover can’t ignore the negative. Nobody should, he said. “There’s a public benefit to knowing about your nonprofit, who founded it, and where the money’s going.” But as the Darden report points out, Livestrong’s leadership didn’t ignore the controversy. They’ve spoken up, and emphasized the mission as separate from the man. That speaks to Stover.
“This,” he said, holding up his arm, “has nothing to do with him.”
As the Darden report details, Armstrong’s identity did mean big money for the nonprofit he founded in 1997, the year he beat Stage IV cancer at age 26. From 2001 to 2007, as Armstrong raked in the wins, annual revenues exploded from $9 million to $40 million. Sales of the ubiquitous $1 “LIVESTRONG yellow” wristbands at one point topped 100,000 a day.
But the reputational blows that accompanied Armstrong’s fall from grace have delivered big hits. Donations fell 22 percent in 2012, according to a July story from Reuters, and the Darden report says the nonprofit is prepared to see more losses in 2013.
Will others be able to see past the bad press to the good cause? James said it’s not clear yet.
“When you build a brand around an individual and that individual does something to diminish the brand, it really can become a crisis for the organization,” she said. “It’s a cautionary tale about what a firm needs to consider as it’s managing its reputation.”