By all accounts -- and there were many -- Ryan Lochte has provided the most peculiar story of the 2016 Olympic games. The 12-time Olympic medalist found himself in hot water after Fox Sports reporter Ben Way happened upon Lochte's mother while sharing a ride on an Olympic shuttle bus, where she let slip that her son had been “held up at gunpoint” the previous evening.
After Way broke the news on Twitter, word quickly spread and Lochte soon found himself fully submerged in a public relations nightmare.
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The challenge for Lochte’s team -- which includes crisis management specialist Matthew Hiltzik, who was brought on as an adviser shortly after it became clear that Lochte’s account of the events was questionable, to say the least -- was to shift the narrative away from the consensus that Lochte had lied and instead reposition the media’s attention to his “over-exaggerated” statements.
Lochte sat down for interviews with Matt Lauer and the Brazilian television station Globo TV -- both aired, in full, Saturday evening -- to discuss his actions. He stuck to the script: Lochte never admitted lying, only that he “left details out” and “over-exaggerated” the series of events that evening.
Understanding the response.
We analyzed mainstream media coverage in the United States from Aug. 19 to Aug. 23 -- specifically looking at the phrases "lying," "lied" and "lie," comparing those with stories that included "exaggerate," "over-exaggerate" and "over-exaggerated" to demonstrate the effectiveness of the messaging strategy. Additionally, we compared social media mentions -- using the same phrases -- across Facebook and Twitter, to see how the mainstream voice translated into social dialogue.
Red = exaggerate; Black = lie
The graph above demonstrates that, upon initial review, Lochte's messaging campaign was successful. Stories that highlighted his over-exaggerations were most prevalent when the interviews aired Saturday night, and when Lochte lost his first two sponsorships -- Ralph Lauren and Speedo -- on Monday afternoon.
While it may be easy to point a finger at Lochte's crisis team when looking to assign blame for his loss of sponsorships, it's important to remember that, by virtue of the sheer amount of press this issue received, Lochte had almost no chance of retaining sponsorship. It's also important to note that even negative coverage about his sponsors still referenced the crafted messaging -- a sign of its real effect.
Red = exaggerate; Black = lie
The social media response was not as favorable. Throughout the entire cycle, the crafted messaging never eclipsed the initial narrative. Parallel actions can be seen when the interview aired Saturday evening (likely due to reposting of mainstream headlines), and the crafted messaging continues to show upticks for the next few hours. But subsequent spikes from the initial narrative are not mimicked by the crafted strategy for the remainder of the sequence.
This is not surprising. The social dialogue is not held to any sort of journalistic standard and is thereby free to editorialize content at its discretion. Measurements of initial reactions on social media to crisis situations often demonstrate receptiveness to sensational rhetoric. However, if the mainstream media continues to cover this story using the crafted campaign, it is likely that social media will, overtime, begin to acquiesce to what will become the larger narrative.
This underscores the notion that getting out in front of a story can be the most effective crisis response. By doing so, you're afforded the opportunity to use the media to your advantage: they have to report what you say. Establishing the conversation around desired talking points -- so long as you don't lie --is the first step to controlling the narrative.