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Assessing the Tiger 'Inc.' PR disaster

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:

  1. Always expect a crisis;
  2. Tell your story first and fast; and
  3. 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 tiger-woodsvery 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.

3 comments to Assessing the 'Tiger Inc.' PR disaster

  • Excellent dissection of the Tiger Woods meltdown. You nail it when you say neither Mr. Woods nor his lawyer is a crisis communications specialist. Obviously, there is no such professional within Team Tiger. A plea for privacy is really a command to "butt out." The world won't, having made Mr. Woods a revered billionaire in the first place.

  • I think the Tiger situation looks like the classic crisis PR moment, but it is not. When a crime is committed it needs to be explained and the public has a right to know. In cases where there is no crime, like this one, there is no obligation to give into the clamor for more information. What people want is the confession or proof of the affair and the allegation that Tiger's wife hit him. What is Tiger supposed to say beyond what he already said about the accident? That he had a fight with his wife? That he had an affair? That his wife hit him? How does that help/preserve his reputation? Anything he would say would make his wife look bad and Tiger is not about to do that.

    The whole purpose of working to have a good reputation is that people give you the benefit of the doubt when you need it, like Tiger does now.

    The golf season is over and Tiger can hunker down and reemerge in the spring good as new. Fore!

  • I usually agree with you, Richard, but not in this case.

    Two long-standing and cherished PR standards—never say “No comment,” and always get out ahead of a crisis–are being applied in this case, but I don’t think either of them is germane.

    What’s surprising to me is how many here are willing to believe—with no credible evidence at all—that Tiger has something to hide. They point to his leaving his house at 0230 as somehow sinister, but going somewhere after midnight is nothing mysterious—especially if you’re a celebrity who values his privacy and wants to avoid paparazzi. Plenty of folks (myself included) stay up late and frequently go grocery shopping (with no crowds), or drop books off at the library, mail letters at the post office, etc., in the early morning. Big cities have plenty of partygoers still going to clubs at 0230. He might not have had a fight with his wife that precipitated his decision to get out of the house—he may just have been unable to sleep and wanted to go for a drive. Maybe he was out of his favorite food and wanted to go get some immediately, or he was just planning to go through a late-night drive-through.

    As for the golf club his wife used on his car, Craig Ferguson made an amusing point on his CBS late-night show yesterday: It’s not surprising that she picked up a golf club to extricate Tiger, since golf clubs are probably lying around everywhere at hand in their house. (“Used as salad tongs, or to pass the bread at the table…”) Ferguson made another good point: “The only thing golfers want to know is if it will have affected his game.”

    Let’s keep this in perspective: The man had a minor driving incident. He went to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries. No one else was involved. We have no credible evidence (obviously, the National Enquirer doesn’t count as credible) that his marriage is in trouble. We have no evidence that he was fighting with his wife, or that she was responsible for his facial lacerations (which could easily have been the result of his crash). He’s probably embarrassed, as most of us would be, at performing so ineptly behind the wheel. Other than waiting three days to issue a statement on his Web site—we all know how infrequently celebrities bother to listen to good PR advice—on what credible basis can we conclude that Tiger must have something to “come clean about”?

    Florida law apparently does not require Tiger to make a report to the Highway Patrol, or require him to submit to questions. Those who say his refusal to be interviewed makes him look guilty of something need to keep in mind that Tiger is within his rights to not speak with the police, and he isn’t required to explain how the collision occurred. It’s not anyone’s business but his own (and the owner of the tree, as well as the city owning the hydrant); the public does *not* have a *right* to know anything about it—beyond official reports—just because a celebrity happened to be involved. Tiger is not required to explain his impulse to go out at 0230 simply because his fans are curious.

    Right now, all the police can do is write up an incident report, and perhaps cite Tiger for a driving infraction. If Tiger permits police to interview him, however, the police might ask questions he doesn’t want to answer, and more-extensive investigatory reports might leak to the press.

    Celebrities face constant gossip about their marriages, and I’m not surprised that the National Enquirer is printing claims that Tiger has a mistress. That’s how the NE sells papers, after all. Even if it did manage to unearth and report actual news once or twice in its history, the National Enquirer is still a rag; every broken clock is correct twice a day. As for lie-detector tests the NE mentioned as proof of veracity, anyone with just five minutes of coaching and rehearsal can fool lie detectors, which is why they’re not admissible evidence in court.

    I don’t blame Tiger for not responding to gossip; he can’t win whether he explains himself or not. If he says anything, he only feeds the media beast and inflames the situation. If he says nothing, he’s blamed for “stonewalling” or covering up. Tiger’s short statement was all that was necessary to address a minor collision. Having issued it, he can no longer be criticized for remaining silent. (Why he waited three days to release a statement, though, is a mystery—and poor PR.)

    As a former firefighter, I often advise clients to put out fires by starving them of oxygen. Tiger’s best strategy is to issue a statement defusing speculation (which he’s done), then wait until the gossip spotlight shifts from Tiger’s marriage to someone else’s. Without fresh revelations, the mainstream news media are unlikely to keep printing speculation, and Tiger’s collision will soon fade from sight.

    If he says nothing, and his wife says nothing, and he doesn’t talk to the police or to anyone else, all that’s left for the National Enquirer and other gossipers to publish—assuming his marriage actually is not in danger due to infidelity—is speculation. (If, however, their marriage *is* in trouble, and sordid details not only exist but come out later, this will, indeed, be an example of failure to get out in front of a potential image crisis.) Speculation is something celebrities face daily and learn to live with, and many have managed to make ill-founded speculation pay handsomely in lawsuits against trashy gossipmongers.

    As for TMZ, Perez,—why on earth would anyone care what such gossipers “report”? Any celebrity with nothing to worry about in his/her personal background can safely disregard such scandalmongers. I don’t have any data on the audiences of TMZ and Perez, but I suspect that most are probably not the type of discerning media consumers who think for themselves. Thus, they’re probably not a group that Tiger needs to worry about, at least in terms of being able to affect his income.

    The only publics that Tiger Woods ever needs to worry about are his endorsement clients, the golf Majors and (to a lesser extent) the golfing public. He has an agent to smooth over any concerns his endorsement clients may have, and he’s already so rich from endorsements that if he lost them all or never had any again it wouldn’t make any difference to him. As for the Majors, assuming he manages to avoid triggering any morals clauses (if they even have any) he should easily be able to keep playing in them. That leaves the golfing public, which is going to continue to want to see him play no matter what personal issues he may have. Whether they will continue to buy the brands he endorses is the only critical element at risk in all this. Based on what is credibly known to date, Tiger’s clean image so far and enormously strong brand can easily withstand speculation and rumor.

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