You know the backstory. He’s the flawless sportsman and global icon whose myth of invincibility was shattered the moment his car was involved in a late night collision outside his Florida home.
Our interest is not in golf, nor in private lives nor all-too public affairs. We’re interested in the speed with which PR professionals have rushed to offer advice and commentary to brand Tiger Woods.
In the event, the advice Tiger Woods has acted on seems to have invited nothing but public outrage and severe criticism from PR experts all over the world. Although Tiger’s team attempted to restore his damaged reputation by releasing a personal statement on his official website, they stand accused of having overlooked some of the most basic principles of crisis management.
First of all, his statement was released way too late, more than 40 hours after the crash. This only aggravated the situation by giving the public ample time for speculation and hungry journalists enough opportunity to take their imagination to new heights. Mark McClennan, in the Schwartz PR Blog recalled the observant comment from Mike McDougall of Bausch & Lomb, that “the 24 hour news cycle is now the 24 minute, or 24 second news cycle”, while David Eichler of David & Sam PR observes that “there’s only two things worse than whatever really happened outside Tiger Woods’ house: speculation and the appearance of a cover up”.
Celebrities cannot have privacy
Amanda Alvaro of Narrative Advocacy Media predicted that Tiger’s refusal to come clean with the rumours of his alleged affairs is proving to be even more damaging to his career, which the media would call the “…Swiss cheese story line. There are so many holes in this…he needs to tell the story clearly, and he needs to tell it again and again, and without doing that the tabloids and the media are going to make up the story for him”, while Greg Smith, founder of the UK-based Greg PR rightly reflected that “when you earn a billion dollars as a celebrity you have no privacy. No matter how uncomfortable the truth may be, Tiger’s advisers would be well served to learn from history and not try to run, hide or pretend they don’t owe the public the truth”.
The expert advice that has been flowing seems to be varied and contrasting in nature.
Rich Schapiro from NY Daily News reported unanimous opinions from PR experts such as Sean Cassidy, president of Dan Klores Communications and Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Communications who felt that Woods should get back to his game and ignore all rumours and gossip, while Michael Cherenson, the CEO of the PRSA advised Tiger to do a personal interview to clear the air, since “there’s this giant void of information, and it’s being filled with misinformation, rumors, innuendo, lies”. Tony Felice, CEO of Tony Felice Public Relations & Marketing in Phoenix and Jason Rose, president of Rose & Allyn Public Relations in Scottsdale agreed that Tiger should come clean in the public eye, also suggesting a press conference or video release that would answer all questions.
Gerry McCusker, PR consultant and crisis PR author recommended the three ‘R’s of crisis management for Woods: Regret, Responsibility and Remedial action, and now with new Web 2.0 rules of reputation management, also ‘R’ for Real. “Woods must move towards honesty and ‘Get Real’”, he wrote.
Area 224 Managing Principal Dave Van de Walle explains reputation management through social media by giving us the example of Michael Phelps, who not only developed a huge Facebook following of over 2,800,000, but also engaged with them fairly frequently so his fans could get a feeling of involvement from his side. As a result, when he was faced with a problem, apologising to his Facebook friends and fans won him considerable public support.
Tweet Tiger, Tweet!
This engagement through social media is exactly what was identified as missing in Tiger Woods’ response. His personal website contains no platform for two-way communications, only one-sided in the form of comments from his fans. Dave advised Tiger to engage with his audience, to comment back in order to interact with his public, and also ‘Tweet’!
An interesting take on the situation came from Robbie Vorhaus, a communications adviser quoted in The Huffington Post. As a reputation management tactic, he believes Woods should tell a hero’s story, which is redemptive and healing to the souls of the public. A hero is usually confronted with a difficult situation, which in this case would be the car crash, added to which would be the intentions of the wife – “is she a villain or life saver?” The evil mistress or the femme fatale would be the antagonist in this story who prevents Tiger from achieving his goal, added to which “Tiger will have more tests, torments and rewards, followed by the long road back to a normal world, yet forever changed, reborn, renewed, and enlightened”.
A former activist pointed out that Americans may be too vulnerable to PR machinations for their own good – whether it’s drumming up public support for a murder case defendant like Amanda Knox or creating a multimillion dollar image empire like Tiger Woods and others.
There have been several athletes before Woods – such as Joe Namath and Wilt Chamberlain – known for their notorious womanising. Michael Phelps and Marion Jones were accused of doping and marijuana, and also Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez who were accused of taking steroids. It may be the gullible public who should be blamed for putting Tiger Woods on a pedestal after he gladly accepted his responsibilities of a role model.
Smooth and spotless?
It was also because of his endorsements that Tiger Woods needed to keep his reputation squeaky clean, with some of the world’s biggest brands such as Buick, Nike, Gatorade, Gillette, EA Sports, and Accenture backing him with their bucks.
In the 1997 GQ profile of Woods, Charles P. Pierce had written that “the Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers” and that getting married and having children only added to Woods’ marketability, raising his image to “divine and monogamous and the center of a happy nuclear family”.
This can now be sharply contrasted to Tiger’s recent confessions of his ‘transgressions’ after this incident that “I’m human… I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect”.
It was strongly recommended by celebrity PR specialist Mark Borkowski that Tiger should make a “public display of contrition, perhaps in a television interview”. Tiger or his PR Team seem to have had the same thoughts, as the latest reports talk of him considering an offer of being interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, along with his wife Elin in a joint effort to clear the air.
Amidst all the accusations and scandal, it is heartening to see that there are PR experts who feel that Woods’ reputation will not or should not be affected by this scandal.
Cataunya Ransom, lead publicist of Mosnar Communications feels “Tiger Woods is a sustainable brand with organic brand equity to remain on top even in crisis situations. Advertisers should not worry about Woods’ endorsement deals because his brand is one of the most sustainable”, the same view being shared by Rachel Froggart, the Braben director of sport.
The Sports PR Company director, Caroline McAteer felt that “Tiger Woods’ image as a family man may be damaged but he is still the number one golfer in the world, and fans will still travel all over the world to see him play”, while Jason Madeley, founder of Hatch PR keeps faith in Tiger Woods, stating that the athlete is “one of a kind and it would be very difficult for a brand to find an alternative ambassador with not only the talent, but the global reach, crossing both international and cultural boundaries”.
Truth is the ultimate spin
Let’s keep in mind that Tiger Woods has not committed a sin that could destroy a successful sports career. He has not been accused of steroids, insider betting or anything that could question his commitment to his sport. Doug Heye from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog believes that “America has an incredible capacity to forgive, giving second and third chances. For that to happen to Woods, no matter how much credibility he has built, requires being both proactive and forthright”, while Robbie Vorhaus in the Huffington Post concluded that “Tiger Woods doesn’t need a PR handler; just a reminder that he’s a hero, and that truth is always the ultimate spin”.