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3:37 pm
Fri August 24, 2012

Can Livestrong Survive Armstrong's Fall?

Originally published on Fri August 24, 2012 3:55 pm

Lance Armstrong may soon be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, but many supporters are sticking by him — if not as the celebrity cyclist, then as the relentless advocate for cancer survivors.

That's encouraging news for his Livestrong foundation, which must deal with the delicate matter of a scandal-tainted figurehead.

Armstrong, who retired last year, announced Thursday night that he would stop fighting allegations he used blood doping and performance enhancing drugs in competition — a move that effectively surrenders his championship titles. It was perhaps no real surprise, given Armstrong's years-long battle with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, though social media came alive at the news:

"Lance Armstrong is a 7 time [Tour de France] winner & a living Sporting Legend. No [WitchHunt] will change that," one tweet read, referring to the protracted investigation into possible doping.

"I'm Lance Armstrong's reputation..." declared a Twitter user known as @Oops I am Dead.

Others seemed less concerned about Armstrong the disgraced cyclist and more about Lance Armstrong the humanitarian. "Drugs or no drugs, anyone that raises $500 million to fight cancer is cool by me," tweeted @Sergethew.

Yet another Twitter missive stated simply: "Distractions OFF. Cancer ass kickings ON!"

Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman expressed much the same sentiment, albeit a toned-down version, as he fielded questions Friday from journalists wondering where the charity, with its ubiquitous yellow wristbands, goes from here.

Armstrong's decision "allows us to refocus our attention without all the distractions we've had to endure in the past," Ulman tells NPR.

"Lance and I had talked about it over the past day or so and we fully supported his decision. For the organization, it's the right thing," he says.

"In the hours since this announcement, my inbox has been flooded with people offering their support for Lance and the organization," Ulman says. "It's been humbling, really. We've had donors who have contacted us and committed to contribute even more money to support us."

Ulman says Livestrong saw a 13 percent increase in contributions during the past year through July, despite the charges against Armstrong as well as a shaky economy that has hammered many other charitable groups.

Stacey Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, says Livestrong's ability to weather a storm years in the making has been noteworthy, especially given how closely the charity is associated with Armstrong. "It's been really tricky for the organization to be able to deal with all of these challenges to Lance's image," she says, "but one of the things that's so interesting is that they've managed to increase their fundraising and demonstrate that they're much beyond what his role is."

When the Tiger Woods Foundation was blindsided by controversy in 2009 after the golfer admitted marital infidelities, it struggled to regain its footing. But Livestrong's circumstances are somewhat different, says Bobby Zafarnia, president of Praecere Interactive, a boutique public relations firm that specializes in crisis management.

First, he says, the Woods scandal landed like a bombshell while Armstrong's has been on slow boil for years. Second, Armstrong has essentially two bases of support: those who respect him primarily as an athlete and those who admire his charitable work — and Zafarnia says many of those fans overlap.

Mike Lawrence, a vice president for crisis prevention and management at Cone Inc., agrees. Armstrong, he says, "is not a pariah everywhere. There are a lot of people out there that still love him."

Zafarnia also says Livestrong has had ample time to anticipate and prepare for this possibility. "Their playbook that they've been following so far, at least as far as public relations is concerned, has been pretty smart, I think," he says. "I was looking at their website today. They've got their holding statements in place, and they've lined up advocates on their side."

Lawrence thinks Livestrong should be OK if the organization can "play its cards right and can present faces that appeal to people who might not like Lance as well as those that do."

Palmer of The Chronicle of Philanthropy says that's going to be a tricky balance, but one that Livestrong ultimately has a good shot at striking.

"I think people are ready to move on. They have their feelings about Lance Armstrong one way or another and they've seen what the nonprofit organization can do," she says.

"Even though it took Lance Armstrong's celebrity to spread the news and make the charity happen, now it might not mean so much," Palmer says. "I think Livestrong and the yellow wristbands have become part of the ethos."

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