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Tiger Woods Controversy Offers a Lesson in Public Relations

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After collectively holding its breath last week as news leaked out about Tiger Woods being injured in a car accident, the sports world quickly exhaled and started asking why…and how? Soon, we learned the world’s best golfer and, arguably, the most well known athlete on the planet isn’t infallible. His response, or lack thereof, failed on many levels. And failure isn’t something Tiger Woods handles well.

The controversy offers a lesson in public relations and almost every PR firm in the country has an opinion on what he should have said or how he should have said it.  The bottom line, though, is that he needed to say something earlier. Anything.  His silence, of course, spoke volumes. 

Questions lingered about the bizarre accident and rumors swirled until a mistress came out in public to answer the questions for him.  From a PR perspective, the last thing you want is the controversy to get ahead of you and that’s exactly what happened in this case.

His first statement to the public (via his website at simply asked for privacy.  You only get that when there’s nothing public about your life or your shortcomings. The media won’t report on something that’s not there. The shroud of secrecy only made the media want the story more. Tiger Woods has become a brand unto himself – making hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement deals.  If he simply played golf well and never took money for doing it, no one would care about his life or image.  But, when you take money from the public through product endorsements and make money on the golf course because people are willing to pay to watch you play, you become a public figure. Tiger tacitly consented to a public image.

At that, the golfing world has mostly been seen as a pristine world with gentlemen and ladies excelling in their sport. Bad things don’t happen.  John Daly has been publicly criticized for his drinking problems and sponsors have left him faster than sand in a sieve. Tiger’s club-tossing and foul mouth was enough to make families cringe but still accept him. Infidelity usually doesn’t just go away and this time, it’s like losing a ball in the water…you can hit another ball, but you’ll never get that original shot back. 

Tiger’s latest response was to issue a longer statement but keep the same tone. The latter is now his biggest mistake.

In the statement he wrote: 

Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.

Wait…he wants to keep his personal life private, yet he parades his children, his wife and even his dogs out for a photo spread in a magazine.  How is that keeping your private life private? You can’t just be a role model when you want to be and turn it off when the light gets too bright.

He’s right, though, personal sins should not require press releases, but when you’re Tiger Woods, they do. And he knows that, otherwise he wouldn’t have issued two statements for the world to read and scrutinize.

Outside of the press release writing and his method for distribution, Tiger chose to take a very defensive stance, albeit a subtle one.  You can’t blame the tabloids and media for the bad attention when you caused it.  If you don’t want the attention, don’t have a mistress and don’t crash your car after midnight. If you want to be humble and graceful, you can’t be defensive and attack others in the same statement.

The PR firm helping Tiger has done anything but in recent days. Will he ever recover?  Probably, he’s Tiger Woods and people love him for his amazing golfing ability, not his personal ‘transgressions’ but his very public image has certainly been tainted.

The best advice a PR firm can give him at this point is to come out with a video statement or possibly a well-selected interview like Alex Rodriguez did on ESPN to respond to the allegations of steroid use. If anything is clear after the last week, it’s that when Tiger speaks, the world listens.  He can use that to his advantage now and show that he is humbled by the events and really does feel sorry.  Seeing him talk about it is better than reading about it.  It’s a chance for him to be genuine and not misunderstood.

Of course, confessing to infidelity doesn’t make your actions okay. But admitting it, taking some lumps in the media and having a strong, well-calculated response will go a long way in restoring a positive view of your image.  So will winning the Masters. Tiger has two ways to make this go away sooner rather than later – win a few tournaments or come clean and mean it.  We won’t know how all of this affects his golf game for another few months, so it’s time to say more than just ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘leave me alone.’

He waited too long to say so little.  It’s clear, Tiger is not used to failure and he doesn’t seem to handle it very well, either.  Neither do the people who are currently advising him.


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1 Comment for Tiger Woods Controversy Offers a Lesson in Public Relations

Joel | July 20, 2010 at 11:03 AM

Tiger should have been completely honest from the beginning and that would have helped a ton. He has down some good things as advised to by his PR team. As the Wellons blog points out, the media’s questions have been grenades that Tiger has not picked up. He is doing some things right.

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