News and analysis
February 11, 2013

4 Steps Livestrong Took to Cope With Founder’s Scandal

Aaron M. Sprecher/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

The nonprofit group Lance Armstrong founded to fight cancer was ready as early as 2010 to kick the cyclist out of his leadership role, said Katherine McLane, vice president for communications and external affairs.

“When the issue first arose and allegations were first made, a small group of the leadership laid out scenarios,” she said. Asking the founder to leave was something the group was prepared to do. “That was hoped and prayed was never going to happen, but matters pretty much changed drastically.”

Ms. McLane spoke publicly about the situation for the first time on a panel at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual nonprofit conference in Washington.

Things did change drastically in November, after a cycling investigative agency detailed Mr. Armstrong’s drug use and the Tour de France stripped him of his medals.

The charity asked Mr. Armstrong to leave the board and announced that his name would no longer be a part of the charity’s official identity.

'A Trying Time’

Ms. McLane said that ever since May 2010, when the allegations grew more serious, it’s been a “trying time” for the nonprofit, which serves cancer survivors and their families.

“We’re not cyclists,” she said. “Dealing with the trauma of having a famous founder getting a lot of negative attention for the last two years is pretty tough. It’s a distraction.”

Initially the organization defended Mr. Armstrong aggressively, she said, because the cyclist did not tell the group an accurate story of what had happened.

“We, along with the rest of the world, were not told the truth. In the early days, the smoldering portion of the scandal, we did indeed come to his defense,” Ms. McLane said.

But for most of the ordeal the group’s strategy was to stick to the idea that “we’re not here to defend an individual, we’re here to provide a service,” she said. “We had to write our own playbook.”

The Right Tone

Reflecting on the episode, she said four factors helped the group weather the criticism it took.

• Its board of directors was ready to make tough decisions and tell its founder to “step away for the sake of preserving” the noble cause Mr. Armstrong had started. “Lance did the right thing,” Ms. McLane said. “He agreed. He’s no longer officially affiliated with the Livestrong Foundation.”

• The charity’s executive team “acted swiftly” and wasn’t “paralyzed” by the daunting news it had to deal with.

• Top leaders supported the communications unit, which made public announcements that had to strike the right tone between supporting the founder and getting donors, staff members, and others ready to realize that the charity might need to step out from Mr. Armstrong’s shadow.

• The charity kept donors informed at each juncture of the unfolding scandal. During the height of the crisis, Livestrong saw donations spike, she said, because the charity sent messages to its supporters telling them that it needed them more than ever. Ms. McLane said honesty was always the best policy, and it didn’t want donors to have to ask the organization about what was going on.

Last month, before taping an interview with Oprah Winfrey to confess to using drugs to enhance his cycling performance, Mr. Armstrong went to Livestrong’s headquarters in Austin and apologized to the 100-member staff. “We accepted the apology,” Ms. McLane said. “We have to move on and we have to put this behind us.”

Send an e-mail to Raymund Flandez.