A tale of two PR Agendas
Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong is the latest celebrity to sit down with Oprah Winfrey, America’s de facto confessor, for a “no-holds-barred” two-part confessional. The two-part interview in which Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing substances during his heralded career after he had steadfastly denied doping allegations, was aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a joint venture between Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications.
Winfrey earned high marks for her tough-but-polite interrogation, and importantly for her, the interview was a rare ratings win for her struggling cable network — the query “what channel is OWN” reportedly spiked on Google Thursday evening.
And Winfrey has form in confessionals: After a video appeared to catch Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, getting money for access to her ex-husband, Ferguson went to Winfrey; Ellen DeGeneres made the decision to come out with a confessional to Winfrey; Whitney Houston made her frank and often unsettling discussion of drug use with Winfrey; Rihanna opened up to Winfrey about former boyfriend Chris Brown’s attack video, then earlier this month David Letterman opened up to Winfrey about his depression and the scandal when he admitted to sleeping with staffers on his late night show.
These sit-downs don’t always yield the answers the audience is looking for, nor do they need to. Winfrey never disgraces herself and has a knack for creating a rapport with her guests – remember Tom Cruise’s ‘Couch Jump’ while professing his love for Katie Holmes (err…now divorced).
Here are four topline rules for the confessional couch to help PR professionals rate the interview. How did Armstrong/Oprah rate:
1. Identify your agenda and make sure it is supported
Oprah – publicise my channel; Armstrong – still left us a bit bewildered on both counts.
2. Choose your interviewer/ee carefully
Winfrey is not in the same league as CBS interviewer Couric (remember the disastrous Governor Sarah Palin and Katie Couric interviews(CBS, 2008), or David Frost’s 1977 Nixon interviews with the only US president forced to resign resulting in Peter Morgan’s 2006 play Frost/Nixon and the subsequent film adaptation) but then so far, neither are her victims. So both Armstrong and Winfrey were nicely matched.
3. Don’t flunk the sincerity test (remember “sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made”, attributed to comedian George Burns or anchorman Walter Cronkite)
His involves deciding whether to play the crying game – Diana Spencer in her confessional BBC interview with Martin Bashir about her catastrophic failed marriage to Prince Charles, talked movingly about crying day after day, but without shedding a tear in her interview. Oprah passed – tough but polite, Armstrong failed – never really convinced that he believed he had done anything seriously wrong or damaged the sport of cycling.
4. Have some soundbytes
Again from the Diana confession: “There were three of us in that marriage,” to Nixon’s: “I gave them a sword” (acknowledging he helped his enemies). None here.
So – agendas achieved?
Winfrey: She was keen to promote the Armstrong interviews prior to their showing on OWN – an interview with “CBS This Morning” enabled the ‘Grande Dame’ of confessionals to expose – and, of course, help viewers find – her new cable network (and of course the interview).
The result? More viewers for her struggling channel. The Armstrong Confession was seen on Winfrey’s Network by 28 million worldwide. Agenda achieved.
Armstrong: Stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport, riding a bike through the Pyrenees and the Alps (even with drugs) is nothing to the mountainous public relations hurdle Armstrong is now facing. But more importantly, the even more mountainous legal ramifications…
So at first sight there was no obvious agenda. But there is one that seems to hold weight in some informed circles – this obsessive athlete wants to compete again. Watch this space as to whether he achieves this.