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The Art And Science Of Remaking A Public Persona

Mark Sanford served as governor of South Carolina until an extramarital affair instigated a censure from the South Carolina Legislature. Lance Armstrong denied using performance-enhancing substances for years, until he admitted to Oprah Winfrey last week that, in fact, he had used those substances. But when can these public figures begin to rehabilitate their images? Host Rachel Martin speaks with crisis manager Judy Smith about the process.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Remember that story about the missing governor of South Carolina? After being gone for several days, Governor Sanford tried to explain his absence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Saying he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. But one news report claims Sanford's state vehicle, which was also reported missing, was tracked down to Columbia Metro Airport. Seen inside: running and camping gear.

MARTIN: It turns out the governor had not been hiking at all. As he admitted in a press conference, he had actually flown to South America.

MARK SANFORD: So the bottom line is this: I've been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a - what started as a dear, dear friend from Argentina.

MARTIN: Well, that friendship turned into much more. In fact, Sanford is now divorced from his wife and engaged to the woman he had an affair with. Mark Sanford finished out his term as governor in disgrace. But now, after a few years out of the public eye, he has returned to political life and he's running for Congress. And then there's Lance Armstrong. Last week, he finally admitted to using banned substances in his professional cycling career and repeatedly lying about it for years.

LANCE ARMSTRONG: Some people are gone forever, but I'll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: That was Lance Armstrong in an interview on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

JUDY SMITH: You have to say that you're sorry and you have to mean it.

MARTIN: That is Judy Smith. She's the CEO of crisis management firm Smith and Company. When reputations is on the brink of ruin, she is the one who gets the phone call. Smith's career also inspired the ABC drama appropriately named "Scandal." We talked with her about the art and science of remaking a public persona. I started off by asking her how Mark Sanford knew that the time was right for a comeback.

SMITH: Well, I think you honestly don't know until you get out there and test the water. And I think what's been refreshing about him thus far is he's come out and addressed the situation head-on. He talked about he made a mistake, that he hopes that people can really look past that. I also think that the crisis that he was involved in is one that the American public is used to seeing at this point, just in terms of elected officials and, you know, extramarital affairs.

MARTIN: We, obviously, have to talk about the other major scandal of the week.

SMITH: Oh my gosh, yes.

MARTIN: Which has had a much broader impact really. This is, of course, Lance Armstrong, his late admission of drug use. So, Judy, is it too late for him to reframe his image?

SMITH: Well, I think it's going to depend on what he ultimately wants to do. Certainly, I think, you know, his objective coming out was to, you know, apologize for his behavior. And the feedback, I think, that's coming across that most people feel that the apology was not authentic.

MARTIN: And that's important.

SMITH: Yeah. And it's particularly troubling, I think, in light of the fact that he defended himself in that area just so persistently and consistently.

MARTIN: I know he's not paying you, but what advice would you give him at this point?

SMITH: Well, I think what he needs not to be doing is focusing on his sports career. You know, there have been some reports that he thinks that he's going to, you know, come back and that when the ban is off try to lift the ban. So, I wouldn't be focusing on that. I would certainly be focusing on trying to work on myself personally. You know, the American public is very forgiving. You have to say that you're sorry and you have to mean it.

MARTIN: You said that Americans are by nature forgiving people. Do you think it's actually to a public person's advantage in some way to be a flawed person who goes through some kind of process and is contrite and asks for forgiveness and is redeemed? Do people root that narrative, for that story?

SMITH: They do. But, you know, it has to be genuine. Absolutely they do. Because I think you and I know, and all of your listeners, we are all flawed people. We all have made mistakes and wish there were things that we would have done differently. So, no one is immune from that. The issue is whether or not people believe that Lance is in that place where he is truly sorry for what he's done.

MARTIN: Judy Smith is the president and CEO of Smith and Company, and she's the author of the book "Good Self, Bad Self." Thanks so much, Judy.

SMITH: Thank you so much, Rachel, for having me. Have a great weekend.

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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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