Tips for Tiger: Handling a Media Mess
Unless you've been living under a rock (or you were "hiking the Appalachian Trail" over the weekend), you know that Tiger Woods is in a tight spot. Figuratively, his ball is in a deep fairway bunker, and he's lying 3 on a tough par-5 ... 255 yards out, with a tree blocking his line to the green.
Yes, something happened at 2:00 in the morning on Friday. We may never know what. Details are sketchy and the story keeps shifting. Today, Tiger released a public statement:
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. 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 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. 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. 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.
There are a couple key things to note here:
1- The statement above rings hollow. It lacks contrition. Tiger is not the victim here. He's a public figure; he relinquished his privacy a long time ago. I'm not saying that's fair. It just is. Tiger is also a role model to many, especially many kids. An act like this one equates to him letting down (i.e., disappointing) his fans. He never said, "I am sorry."
2- We haven't seen him. The public cannot judge his non-verbals. We need to see video in order to be able to assess his remorse and his sincerity. Better still, we need to see Tiger with Elin at his side ... happy couple together, working through this together.
With the clear understanding that (1) rehabilitating a reputation takes time and that (2) actions speak louder than words, let's shift the focus toward the public relations strategy. What are the right tactics to use in a situation where a person has made a career-threatening mistake? I would advise my clients and anyone else to adhere to the following ABC principles:
A - Apologize
Admit your mistake and ask for forgiveness. Demonstrate that you have a contrite heart. This is done by speaking in a humble manner and expressing remorse.
B - Be genuine
Show some emotion. No one will forgive an over-rehearsed, stiff emotionless robot. Speak from the heart and use natural, appropriate hand gestures and other non-verbals. Obviously, we don't want to see a blubbering basket case, but genuineness and emotion can be very helpful. This is where television could help.
C - Compassion
Show compassion. The root of the word "passion" is "suffer." To show compassion is to demonstrate that you are suffering with the person (or parties) who were affected. The audience will identify with compassion and respond favorably to it. Perhaps no one understood this better than Bill Clinton who repeatedly emphasized: "I feel your pain." Tiger's last sentence of his statement, calling for some privacy "no matter how intrusive some people can be" simply kills any hint of compassion (for Elin or for his fans).
All in all, the majority of the positive impact, or image rehabilitation, will come in the weeks and months that follow the initial episode. Sorry ... there simply is no quick fix. If Tiger was our client, we would work with him to establish an ambitious, pro-active outreach plan to lead them through this subsequent phase. Ultimately, the key to successfully rehabilitating a reputation is consistently repeating good deeds, rightful and helpful acts, over an extended period, in a manner that reestablishes trust. Hunkering down and remaining invisible will not help to make this go away. The media is not going to let go of this story. Details will continue to emerge, and Tiger (in his defensive posture) will be plagued by such episodes as the story plays out.
ABC Tiger ... ABC!
By the way, The Huffington Post is all over this story, if you want more details and angles.