New Darden Case Explores the Health of Nonprofit LIVESTRONG After Creator, Lance Armstrong, Admits Doping

13/08/2013

A new case released by Darden Business Publishing, LIVESTRONG: Cycling Around Lance Armstrong, focuses on the LIVESTRONG Foundation, created by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong after his own bout with cancer. Armstrong was stripped of his seven medals late last year for using performance-enhancing drugs.  

LIVESTRONGLIVESTRONG: Cycling Around Lance Armstrong is a valuable teaching resource because it engages students in an active discussion about a real business problem and its possible solutions.

Through the case, Erika James, senior associate dean for Executive Education and professor of business administration, and senior researcher and co-author Jenny Mead offer a glimpse into the concerns and questions faced by the leaders of the LIVESTRONG Foundation and how they should approach communicating with their primary stakeholders — cancer patients — after their founder’s loss of the public’s trust.

“This case can teach us a lot about getting out in front of communication. The LIVESTRONG organization did nothing wrong, but it could be perceived as guilty by association, and that needs to be managed just as if it was in fact the guilty party,” said James, who is an expert in managing and leading through crisis.

James also noted that this case presents a lesson about the risks of organizations associating with high-profile people. Companies such as Nike that use famous athletes or celebrities to endorse products face this same risk.

After years of speculation and investigations, Lance Armstrong finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during an interview with Oprah Winfrey on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The highly anticipated confession took place in January of this year.

“People are human, and by extension fallible,” James said. “Tying an organization’s brand to a well-known figure is a risk that must be managed.”

James, co-author of the book Leading Under Pressure: From Surviving to Thriving Before, During and After a Crisis, met with a few of the LIVESTRONG Foundation’s leaders. Like many, these leaders felt disappointment.

“There was a personal friendship between them and Lance,” added James. “That friendship felt undermined after Lance’s admissions of impropriety.”

James also observed that LIVESTRONG always “lived” its calling as a cancer-support organization, and avoided being in the spotlight of Armstrong. She feels that their culture of staying dedicated to the cause could bode well for its leaders.

“Since the controversy they have been working hard to double-down on their communication efforts around the mission — to serve the needs of people with cancer,” James explained. “The leaders I spoke with were clearly nervous about the possibility of fallout from Lance’s controversy, but focused on moving forward.” 

In mid July, 198 riders cycled through the 3,404 kilometers that made up the 2013 Tour de France bicycle race. Quietly, in the background, memories of the event’s highly celebrated competitor and his fall from grace lingered. Soon, students will discuss and debate ways for the LIVESTRONG Foundation to keep living strong.

For questions or information, contact Abena Foreman-Trice at foremantricea@darden.virginia.edu or a member of the Communication team

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