Consider that Tiger Woods is the corporate chieftain of the singularly most identifiable and lucrative sports brand in the world– himself. Most would presume that among his cadre of trusted advisors he would turn to a veteran chief communications officer for help when his personal misdeeds threaten his bankable professional reputation. Certainly his Fortune leading sponsors have this expertise and it could be available for their most valued marketing ambassador.
Evidently he either hasn’t availed himself of this counsel, or he’s not listening. Meanwhile advisors, corporate sports marketing sponsors and sideliners must wince as his compounding implosion becomes a textbook case in how NOT to handle a crisis. For such a public person whose billionaire star power has been built on the foundations of crisis management – preparedness, readiness, practice and precision execution – his failure to step forward and chart a turnaround is instructive for companies of all sizes. Here are some four textbook crisis management lessons that this sad saga illustrates:
1) Hiding does not make the story go away: Tiger’s conspicuous absence has only worsened the negative hit to his reputation and fueled the “gotcha” media. TV commentators are creating the facts and newsrooms are left to replay the damaging footage of his smashed SUV, a growing montage of his alleged paramours, and most recently, a new EMT call to his home complete with telltale ambulance run. The media, including the likes of celebrity spotlight TMZ, haven’t been furnished with anything to replace this damaging content.
2) Public figures retain some privacy, but not all of it: Sorry Tiger, but your colossal net worth is grounded in global public trust, your stellar golf performance and your image of infallibility and decorum. Companies like PepsiCo’s Gatorade and Gillette have put their brands and customer loyalty line on in your name. When your conduct failed to uphold those expectations, the public looks for you to make the case for why fans and brands should stand by you. A website posting feigning media “victim” does not erase the ink of a contractual endorsement conduct clause or the shock of your uncharacteristic alleged transgressions. In the short term Nike may seem to be turning a deaf ear but your actions portend consequential decisions for their marketing spend. Customers will respond by closing their wallets. Expect more sponsor fallout.
3) No crisis is local: Contrary to the enduring mantra of legendary House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, what happens in Florida or at any school, corporate building or country will not stay there. This reality requires a crisis response that incorporates the information flow to all stakeholders, in this case, state emergency response agencies, media that follows Tiger Woods or has latently joined this story juggernaut, or global brand and tournament marketers with attachments to him. The court of public opinion is borderless and powerful.
4) To take control of this story only Tiger Woods can (and should) come forward: in the meantime he should have one authorized spokesman to speak on his behalf. His deafening silence without proxy representation is putting off D-Day with a marquee interviewer, for which he should be expertly coached in order to respond to the obvious, discomforting questions. Until he sits for an interview, the media will create the story by conjecture. American forgiveness is well known– just ask Martha Stewart, Michael Milken and even Elliott Spitzer. The same disciplined practice known to Tiger in golf is what is required for an effective crisis turnaround. He should work with a PR expert with crisis experience to help him better organize his thoughts, and deliver them with palpable sincerity. A rigorous media training session is unavoidable. The choice of the interviewer is equally important and should be well reasoned with advisors (my suggestion is ABC News/GMA anchor Robin Roberts).
With every day that passes status quo, more endorsement dollars will be lost and cynicism toward Tiger Woods will increase. NBC’s enduring lampoon show Saturday Night Live wasted no time in broadcasting a skit that mocked him. Stock values and revenues of his sponsors are at risk. Managing a crisis means that the newsmaker steps forward in a timely way, takes responsibility, and demonstrates through word and deed that the future will not repeat the past. CEOs in companies without a crisis plan on the shelf should take heed—Tiger’s skill in crisis management thus far has surprisingly not matched his golf prowess. How long will his sponsors let this go on?
Note: Loring Barnes, managing principal of Clarity Communications Group, has provided crisis communications counsel and media training to companies, CEOs, and senior executives for 25 years. She is Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and plays golf.