Tiger Woods is a golfer, not a crisis communications professional, and his attorney isn’t either. Those facts are evident because both men broke all of the fundamental rules of crisis communications.
While this assessment isn’t intended to be a cram course in crisis communications [see Crisis Comms tab above], it is a quick look at three critical and fundamental characteristics of successfully managing crisis communications, and how they have been executed so far in the Tiger Wood situation. they are:
- Always expect a crisis;
- Tell your story first and fast; and
- Establish and control your message.
Every company will have to face a crisis at some time. And to think of Tiger Woods as merely a very talented golfer and not as a corporate structure is an unpardonable mistake. Woods’ personal worth of upwards to $1 billion makes him larger than many corporations and, therefore, bestows on him the special personal status of a business entity.
Now, to the three basic “musts” in crisis communications.
1. Anticipate a crisis
Crises are generally preceded by warnings, just like volcanic eruptions. Some warnings are stronger than others; but almost every eruption is preceded by at least one tell.
For Tiger, those early warnings may have begun some time ago, but clearly loud rumblings echoed around him last week. They were unmistakable. And they were all over the tabloids.
The tabs’ reporting (using that term loosely) linked Woods with the New York City “club girl” Rachel Uchitel, who was reported to be staying in the same Melbourne hotel as Woods while he was competing in the Australian Masters tournament, which he won. Australia’s Herald Sun reported that Uchitel might be the classic “other woman.”
At least one tab suggested that a friend of Uchitel’s indicated that the party gal and Woods were an item.
Regardless of how questionable the source, “news” of this nature about a global celebrity of the stature of Woods can’t be ignored — especially when crisis communications is one chapter in your business plan, which it should have been in a Tiger-Woods-as-a-business construction.
2. Be first and fast
When you’re confronted with a crisis, you’re often rattled and sometimes not thinking as clearly as when you’re not under such stress; that’s part of what makes an event a crisis for communications and communicators.
And that’s why anticipating a crisis is so important; you do some of the heavy lifting before the disaster occurs.
Even in this situation, the truth is that Woods had time to think about the impact of two issues: 1. the tabloids’ suggesting his dalliance; and 2. his accidental confrontation with a fire hydrant and a tree near his home in Orlando’s posh gated community of Windermere.
The first challenge occurred several days previous to the final explosion; and the second incident wasn’t made public until more than 12 hours after the collision, which happened shortly after 2 a.m. It took that long for the police to release their accident report, giving Woods considerable time to seek communications guidance.
Then, when Woods had at least three opportunities to talk with Florida state police investigators about the incident — something he wasn’t required to do — he delayed, losing opportunities to take command of both the messages and how they are communicated. In addition to losing messaging opportunities, those refusals to talk with authorities also created more public suspicion, justifiable or not, and revved up media speculation.
Speed in responding to a crisis situation should never be THE guiding principle; however, speed is critical in setting the message, telling your story, and maintaining control (at least among major media). The sooner you comment, generally the less momentous is the event on which you are commenting; it is something of an inverse relationship and can influence how your message is perceived.
3. Establish and control the message
The combined responsibility of setting the message and its precise tone always constitutes Job One in crisis communications.
The message not only must be delivered quickly, but it also must be accurate and have sufficient completeness to keep the story from getting speculative “legs” and taking off on its own. If that happens, you lose control, and this already may be the situation with Woods.
Woods five-paragraph message is classic fodder for “inquiring minds” because, while it initially deals with the auto accident, the statement appears to expand its frame of reference. In doing so, it becomes incomplete, vague, and appears to drift into possible personal indiscretions for which he apologizes, but which are not germane to the immediate issue.
The full Woods statement follows, with underlining emphasis added.
“As you all know, I had a single-car accident earlier this week, and sustained some injuries. I have some cuts, bruising and right now I’m pretty sore.
- “Earlier this week” — The auto crash was hardly more than a day earlier.
- “Some injuries” — Apparently those injuries were of some significance because a day later Woods withdrew from his charity Chevron Golf Tournament. Chevron officials merely stated that “Woods will be unable to play.”
“This situation is my fault, and it’s obviously embarrassing to my family and me. I’m human and I’m not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn’t happen again.
- “This situation is my fault.” — What “sitation?” A minor one-car accident is not “a situation” besides Woods drove the car into a fire hydrant and a tree so it had to be his fault.
- “I will certainly make sure it doesn’t happen again.” — What “it”? Driving too fast out of your driveway?
“This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.
- “This is a private matter.” — A minor one-car accident? Sounds like there’s more to this story than a fender-bender.
- “False, unfounded and malicious rumors” — To what does this statement allude? This sounds like a reference to an alleged Australian tryst, not an auto accident. Is he addressing tabloids’ reports of possible infidelity? This denial of unstated allegations only supports the need for further investigation by reporters, and leads one to believe that the tabloids may be on the right track?
“The only person responsible for the accident is me. My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. She was the first person to help me. Any other assertion is absolutely false.
- “The only person responsible for this accident is me.” — Now he’s back dealing with the car incident. However, he is restating the obvious and the official information contained in the police report. One caution: Over denial can create suspician.
“This incident has been stressful and very difficult for Elin, our family and me. I appreciate all the concern and well wishes that we have received. But, I would also ask for some understanding that my family and I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be.”
- “I deserve some privacy.” — A valiant attempt.
This story is not going away. There are too many loose ends, too much money, too many big names, too much fame, too many pictures of beautiful women. Too many tabs and tab-emulating broadsheets.
Regardless of how much one may dislike the salacious nature of tabloid reportage, the coverage those outlets give this story is forcing the mainstream media to cover it.
This entire affair — so far and as it unfolds — provides an iron clad argument for constructing what-if crisis communications scenarios in which you anticipate the worst and pray they never become reality.