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Oprah interview: Can Lance Armstrong rehabilitate his image?

Lance Armstrong has a very steep hill to climb to regain any measure of public favor, given his past transgressions. But the Oprah Winfrey interview can be a start, image experts say.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 16, 2013

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey interviews cyclist Lance Armstrong during taping for the show 'Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive' in Austin, Texas. The two-part episode will air nationally Thursday and Friday.

George Burns//Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc./AP

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Can Lance Armstrong rehabilitate his image?

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Yes, say public relation and image specialists. Think Marion Barry – the Washington mayor caught on video smoking crack in a room with a prostitute, who came back to be reelected. Or Bill Clinton, who was dubbed “the comeback kid” for politically surviving sexual peccadilloes more than once. Or Tiger Woods, who is now the No. 2 ranked golfer in the world and who may regain some sponsorships.

Americans are extremely forgiving, they say.

For Lance Armstrong, however, the list of “yes, buts” is long, including both image and legal problems. His repeated denials of having used performance-enhancing drugs, together with his efforts to legally and emotionally bully those who suggested otherwise, make him a particularly hard case.

The issue arises because Armstrong reportedly confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that will air in a two-part special Thursday and Friday on Winfrey’s OWN network. In October, Armstrong was slapped with a lifetime ban from professional cycling on the heels of a 1,000-page report last year by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The report chronicled an elaborate, 15-years-long doping program led by Armstrong and involving a long list of performance enhancers from steroids to blood boosters such as EPO.

“To rehabilitate his image, he needs to do many things, and he must do them without a quid pro quo that it will lead to any exoneration,” says Len Shyles, professor of communication at Villanova University. “He owes many apologies to many individuals and interests. Unfortunately a liar, a cheat, and a thief, he defrauded businesses and people of millions of dollars and some may have been severely damaged. He systematically ruined the lives of other cyclists and private citizens, costing them their reputations and many dollars defending themselves from lawsuits.”

Where Armstrong must begin, say several analysts, is reestablishing some small measure of trust and integrity.

"These top athletes are perceived as role models and when they fail to maintain that level of trust, it’s difficult to get it back. Pete Rose is a great example. One of history’s greatest baseball players, but he’s been perhaps permanently scarred by his gambling,” says Mitch Leff, president of Leff & Associates, a public-relations firm in Atlanta. “People will forgive someone who makes a mistake, or does something illegal or unethical, if they admit what they did and show a real effort to change. But when someone lies for years and years, in interview after interview, it is very difficult to forgive.”

That means Armstrong must come across as absolutely sincere – an immense challenge based on his past.

“In his interview with Oprah – and in others that may follow – he must be perceived as genuinely contrite about his past mistakes and not just using the opportunity as a springboard to other pursuits,” says Richard Goedkoop, retired professor of communication at LaSalle University. “This will be a challenge since his denials on this subject go back at least 10 years. Why should we believe he is sincere now?”

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