Sales and customer service are in many ways the most immediate form of public relations and oftentimes the most important in terms of perception formation amongst individual customers. One bad experience with a rude clerk or waiter can jaundice a customer’s attitude towards a business and a dozen positive press releases about the company won’t be able to undo the damage.

 I have a presentation about customer service that I’ve done a few times and in one of the slides there are the following stats, variations of which I think everyone has seen before:

  • On average, a dissatisfied customer with a small problem will tell ten other people.
  • Those with large problems tell 16 other people.
  • 13% tell their experiences to twenty or more people

Figures from Total Quality Service

These numbers are meant to underscore the potentially high cost of bad service to employees and business owners. They are also now probably out of date, as they only consider the offline world.

 Telling people about a negative experience in the offline world takes a fair bit of work. You have to seek people out, usually individually or in small groups, explain what happened and so forth. Most times, unless you are really hopping mad, you’ll probably tire of recounting the tale by maybe the seventh or eighth retelling.

 Social media has made the sharing process a whole lot easier. It doesn’t take too much effort to rattle off a couple of quick sentences, post it to Facebook and suddenly a couple hundred of your “friends” can read about your unhappy experience  in their news feed.

 Similarly, irate customers can blog about their experiences, make Youtube videos to vent their spleen and use twitter to steer their followers to their posts on other social media platforms, posts that in some cases may garner thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes even millions of unique views  

 To be sure, this phenomenon has been growing since at least the early 90’s, with the days of IRC chatrooms, BBS-style forums and the first widespread adoption of email.  There are a few famous cases of poor service stories that went viral such as the “Yours is a Very Bad Hotel” power-point presentation and examples of people setting up websites to detail their feuds with different businesses.

 That said, back in the 90’s there wasn’t anything that had the ubiquity of Youtube or the ease of use of Facebook. The proportion of the general population that had access to the Internet, let alone were using Usenet or IRC, was much smaller. Today everyone and their grandmother have a Facebook account and are at least dimly aware of Twitter.

So certainly for businesses now the potential fallout from unhappy customers is exponentially higher than it has been in the past. Tomorrow in part II, I’ll take a look at why social media has made online reputation management a concern for small businesses as well as big corporations and suggest a few strategies to employ.

The sports world was rocked late last Friday by Tiger Wood’s announcement that he was taking an indefinite hiatus from the PGA to work at salvaging his marriage.

After reading reactions from several sources I get the feeling that Woods’ latest move has divided people into love-it or hate-it camps that will fight over their positions like the Montagues and Capulets. Is it a bold and intelligent move? Is it further proof that Tiger just wants to run away from adversity? You can make a case for either.

I initially had a very favourable impression of Tiger’s decision; however since then my natural cynicism has begun to creep in. Once you get past the previously unimaginable idea that Tiger would be willing to turn his back on golf (for a time at least), then his decision starts to look considerably less-inspired.

Nonetheless, from a public relations and image management standpoint I think this gambit by Tiger achieves several positives. To wit:

  • The announcement itself was written in a more honest and straightforward style and didn’t read like it had been drafted by a publicist or lawyer. Unlike previous missives from Tiger, it didn’t sidetrack to take potshots at the media or other third-parties. Tiger owns up to “infidelities” in this piece instead of the more ambiguous “transgressions” of before and the request for forgiveness seems sincere. In all there is a more conciliatory tone and a better sense of Tiger taking ownership of his mistakes.
  • It will help to stanch media interest because it advances the What is Tiger Going to Do? narrative to an end-game of sorts. Digging up new information becomes a little less enticing because Tiger’s response is already known: he’s away trying to rehab his marriage in private and won’t be responding.
  • With Tiger incognito and most of the lurid claims likely already out there, I think there’s a good chance that we’ll start to see more persistent complaints of the media coverage being at a saturation point very soon.
  • It gives Tiger’s supporters something to rally around for perhaps the first time since the scandal broke. It’s easy now for fans to cast Tiger’s decision to take a hiatus from the PGA as an admirable, even remarkable decision. If Tiger had done a better job of mobilizing his supporters through social networking opportunities then we might have seen some organized blowback start to get directed at journalists and media outlets who are leading the charge on the story. Doesn’t look like this will happen though.

Will this move  kill the story? No

Will the next season or two of the PGA tour be a lot less compelling? Yes

Will this gambit save the marriage of Tiger and Elin? Maybe

Will Tiger return to be the world’s top athletic brand? No, although it is hard to say right now who or what might be able to supplant him.

For the last point though, I’m not sure if this is a major consideration to Tiger anymore. He is already sport’s billion-dollar man. It probably doesn’t matter to him if he makes it to two billion. I think his family and marriage really are important to him and that he really does want to try and save them.

Tiger’s image is gone and can never be restored. His legacy is forever going to have this debacle as a sensational footnote. However, the public’s capacity for forgiveness and empathy remains large. If Tiger can recast himself as a flawed man who was willing to go to extraordinary lengths, such as leaving his profession at the peak of his abilities, to try and make amends for his errors, then he may be able to recapture some of the goodwill and admiration that he has so rightly lost.

In an earlier post I criticized Tiger Woods for retreating into a cone of silence. I still believe this is the wrong approach, however that is not to say that there are no arguments to be made for stonewalling. Over at the Walker Sands Blog, Sky Opila has a good eaxamination of the respective pros and cons of both coming clean and staying silent.

When I first started mulling over the Tiger Woods case, one of the assumptions I had was that he would stay mum mostly because he is an intensely private and guarded person who would be mortified at the thought of having to discuss his personal failings publicly. After all, Tiger has rarely been eager to share the positive aspects of his personal life with the press and public. Having to discuss his infidelity would be tantamount to taking poison for him

Another assumption was that this would turn out to be a fairly garden-variety celebrity sex scandal. However, that was before the  introduction of such elements as porn stars, possible nude photos (that Tiger’s lawyers are trying to prevent from being released), and reports of Tiger paying a Hollywood madam 60 000 $US for the services of pricey call girls. All of this, whether true or not, has added a different dynamic to the crisis. Some of these accusations may prove to be fraudulent. But what if they aren’t? What if there is more potentially explosive information that hasn’t been revealed yet? It serves to underscore that nobody here in the great unwashed really knows what is true and what isn’t in the Tiger affair. Perhaps no one besides Tiger himself knows. Perhaps that is why he is so desperate to stay silent, hoping that the story will pass before the worst comes to light.

When a business faces a public relations crisis, one of the first things that should be done is to take an inventory of all the potentially damaging information or accusations that could be brought forward against the company. When you then outline your approach to the crisis, at least one of the cases should be formulated on the premise that all of the bad news will eventually be exposed. A sort of Murphy’s Law contingency if you will. Many times it will prove easier in the long run to dump all of the ugly truth out at once, rather than let it be dragged out piecemeal by the press.

That being said, public relations crises will rarely destroy a large business. Problems can often be blamed on processes rather than people and in the cases where people are at fault the blame can usually be localized to a relatively small percentage of the workforce. After the mea culpa it’s easy to chart a way out. “We’ve re-emphasized the need to follow safe work procedures and started a compliance committee.” “We’ve fired/reprimanded/sent the manager at fault to sensitivity training.” And so forth.

But what if the information yet to be released could leave a brand non-viable? What if it could destroy the company? It’s hard, for a public relations idealist such as myself, to admit that sometimes being evasive, witholding information and stonewalling might work best, that it might even be necessary.  

Tiger Woods, at essence, is a company of one. To paraphrase a quote from would-be beer baron Frank D’Angelo, he is the brand, the brand is him. His stature has been gained through his exploits on the golf course and the image he has cultivated for himself.In the past he has been able to take all of the plaudits for his accomplishments himself. Now with a scandal of his own making, he will have to accept all the scorn for his transgressions alone. There is no where else to shunt the blame.

It’s a certainty that all of Tiger’s endorsement deals come with some equivalent of a morality clause, stating that he is to display good character and sound judgement in his actions so as to be an appropriate representative of Brand X. If some of the more outrageous accusations prove true, or are admitted to, then it will be easy for any sponsor to claim that he is in breach of the agreement. Gatorade has already severed ties, ostensibly a decision made before the scandal broke.  Now Tag Heuer has done likewise, claiming it is rotating campaigns. Other sponsors will now be scrutinized closely to see if they give indications of following suit.

Tiger’s silence may be calculated as the best strategy to hold on to what he has. I doubt it will work. The failure to address or rebut an accusation is as good as admitting to it, in the eyes of most. If there are more salacious revelations yet to come it is hard to imagine them remaining under wraps at this point. With information technology so pervasive today, no one can hope to wriggle free from a digital noose.

Tiger has a right to privacy. What he doesn’t have is a right to a legacy and to be a global brand. It seems almost inevitable now that he will have to sacrifice one of these things if he hopes to salvage the other.

 

 

 

 

   

I wanted to take a break from Tiger Woods for a little while, so I thought I would offer up the first book review for what I plan to be a recurring feature. With the PR Bookshelf series I’m going to take a look primarily at books that focus on public relations, marketing and branding; however, there will also be reviews of business books that deal with other topics or have a more general scope. Leading off the series will be a look at Brand Failures by Matt Haig.

Brand Failures
Matt Haig
260 pgs.
Kogan Page, UK

Synopsis
In Brand Failures, UK branding and marketing consultant Matt Haig examines 100 of the most spectacular branding disasters that have struck businesses over the last fifty years or so.  Case studies range from all-time fiascos like New Coke, the Sony Betamax and the McLibel Trial, to screw-ups that have now been largely forgotten, such as Lifesavers Soda, and VoicePod – a recording device that allowed users to attach audio messages to email.

Haig has ten categories of failures that he examines: classic failures; idea failures; extension failures; PR failures; culture failures; people failures; rebranding failures; internet and new technology failures; and tired brands. Individual case studies range from as little as one or two paragraphs in length up to a max of five to six pages. Most cases conclude with a bulleted list of “lessons learned” that impress the key takeaway points to the reader.   

Review
Written for a non-expert audience, Brand Failures is a breezy read. The compact length and self-contained nature of the cases studies make it suitable for busy readers as it can be read in chunks of 5 or 10 minutes.  Haig’s clear writing style includes a healthy dollop of humour and he is aided by much of his subject matter, which includes many tales of poor judgement, executive hubris and hopeless products. Readers with even just a passing interest in marketing or business will be chuckling and shaking their heads at ill-thought out ideas such as Bic brand underwear, Colgate Kitchen Entrees, RJ Reynolds’ Smokeless Cigarettes and Smith and Wesson Mountain Bikes.  

The one criticism I have is that because of the short length of many of the examples, Haig’s explanations for the failures of those particular brands can seem a bit pat. However, on the whole Haig does a good job of providing adequate context and explanation to the lay reader. As the book is intended foremost to be an entertaining “greatest hits” package of branding disasters, the occasional lack of in-depth background and analysis can be forgiven.  

Suitable For:
Branding fans and general interest business readers.

 Final Grade
 A

Sounds a little like an epsiode title from The Big Bang Theory doesn’t it? Anyways to further help people find my oh-so-trenchant thoughts on the public relations field I’ve claimed PR Propsectus on Technorati.

So for the good people at Technorati, please find your code below:

DPNBE9RUNZ3U

Tiger’s Latest Troubles

December 8, 2009

Conventional wisdom amongst public relations people is that a crisis event will usually attract attention from the media for about nine days.  Beyond that the media tends to lose interest and move on to other topics. What will prolong interest in a crisis is the revelation of new information, the more lurid the better. In some respects this is what has lead to the saying in politics that “it’s not the crime but the cover-up” that tends to end or severly damage careers when scandals break.

So here we are creeping up on two weeks since Tiger’s turkey-day wreck and the story is still chugging along strongly, with more rumours and speculation being unearthed on a daily basis.  A police report has been quoted in several stories because it is revealed that an attending officer suspected Tiger of being under the influence of alcohol and/or medication.  The “bimbo eruption” counterhas been pegged as high as nine  with speculation that it could be higher and there has even been a bizarre story circulating about Playgirl Magazine acquiring what are possibly nude photos of the champion golfer.  Through it all the rumour mill continues to grind and now there is even some unusual reverse-onus being placed on women who have denied relationships with Tiger, with speculation being that those who have denied the accusations have been paid off.  There has also been several statements making the rounds, mostly unsourced, that Tiger and possibly wife Elin may be appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show in the near future to provide some answers.

I’ve said before that Tiger doesn’t owe the public an explanation, however from several standpoints it might still be in his best interest to provide one.  There is the Tiger Woods brand to think of and also the legacy of Tiger Woods the person and both may have already received lasting damage.  The goal now should be to cut off the possibility of further impact from the scandal at the knees and to begin rehabilitating Tiger’s reputation as best as is possible under the circumstances. There is a good future post I’m hoping to get to comparing Tiger versus Letterman versus Agassi and how they handled the release of personally embarrasing information.

If you’re living in the rarefied air of celebritydom there is very little, aside from being convicted of some utterly heinous crime, that you can do to make yourself completely unsalvageable.  However you have to be able to make at least some of the right moves if you want at least partial redemption.  Waiting to act only serves to stack the deck further against you.

There’s a small cottage industry of experts who are devoted to assisting celebrities in crisis. Every time a major celeb melts down the press will dredge a few of these Svengali’s up to ask them what Celebrity X needs to do to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye.  Lawyer Robert Shapiro is one of these specialists (you may remember him from a minor legal case involving a former NFL running back). His sage advice to clients who find themselves in hot water is to start doing their best Quahog clam impersonation:

“I tell my clients if they talk, I walk,” Shapiro told reporter Jim Gray.

 Hunkering down inside a cone of silence might be a good idea if you’re trying to stay out of San Quentin, but it’s a bad play when it’s your reputation that’s on trial in the court of public opinion.

 When a scandal or controversy erupts a vacuum of information becomes a very dangerous thing. If you don’t demonstrate at least a willingness to communicate openly then the press and public are going to look to other sources of information to fill the void. Instead of defining the message and the situation it’s going to be defined by others for you.

 Oftentimes the people most eager to talk will be rumour-mongers and individuals or groups with an axe to grind and what they will offer up will really just be outright speculation. However, when the party at the centre of the crisis is only offering up cryptic official statements or is not communicating at all, then even the most outlandish statements or theories will be treated with some credulity. Furthermore, the lack of answers will encourage the media to keep digging and extend the life of the story. A vicious cycle can quickly set in.

 And so once again we circle back to the case of Tiger Woods. Team Tiger’s communications approach ever since his early-morning car wreck has ranged from lousy to spectacularly poor.

Tiger’s a great athlete but he also got to where he is in life by being a pretty smart guy. He got to where he is in life by surrounding himself with smart people. The rumours about infidelities and mistresses and all the rest had been simmering for a couple of months. I have to believe that sometime the morning after the accident he had a conference with his advisors and one of them, if not Tiger himself, should have been able to deduce that it would just be a question of time until the lid got blown off completely. That is, assuming Tiger was forthright enough to tell his advisors the whole, grisly, truth, whatever that may be.

When you’re faced with a budding PR disaster and you know you’re going to get hammered and especially when it is because YOU ARE AT FAULT FOR SOMETHING SERIOUS, the best way to fight it is by trying to get ahead of the curve. You have to put the facts out there and articulate your viewpoint on them. You have to be willing to admit when you are in the wrong, before it gets wrung out of you forcibly. If you do this skilfully you can blunt the impact of a controversial story. You project control and by admitting wrong you strengthen your credibility. If you have to refute false or inaccurate claims you will be doing so from a stronger position.

Team Tiger sort of understood this but at the same time they seemed to fall back on the hope that if they only put out a bare minimum of information that the worst revelations would be kept under wraps and interest would subside. Unfortunately, hope is seldom a viable strategy.

Tiger’s first official statement was far from illuminating. While he accepted responsibility for the crash he also took the time to chide the media and blogosphere for spreading unfounded rumours that were of course completely untrue and asked that his family’s privacy be respected by all and sundry. That coupled with his subsequent and repeated evasions from questioning by the Florida Highway Patrol was as good as throwing a bucket of chum into the shark tank that is the tabloid press.

With regards to the adultery, Tiger elected to go the Bill Clinton route of staying in denial until that position became completely untenable. To his (and his PR flaks’ credit) he did put out a statement quickly after Us released its scooped voicemail and text messages acknowledging his personal failings and asking for forgiveness. However, even that statement was problematic, containing a grudging remark that “personal sins do not require press releases”, offering only the vaguest confirmation of his “transgressions”, and lambasting the media and public for having the gall to intrude on his privacy. The net effect was a very whiny tone to the statement and the impression that it had only been put out under duress.

Even today Tiger’s official website  carries nothing on its homepage about the scandal. His repeated calls to be left alone have almost guaranteed that he will not be. His evasiveness is a red-flag to the press that there must be more to the story, and so they will keep looking.

Well it took the still-unfolding Tiger Woods saga to push me over the edge and finally start this blog, so fittingly the first post (and likely several more to come) will be about the tribulations of Eldrick Woods, how they could have been handled better and what they might mean.

 There’s a lot that can be discussed about the scandal from a PR perspective, ranging from handling crisis communications, to the changing nature of celebrity, to the impact of new media on news dissemination.  I’ll be getting to most of these issues in due course but first I feel inclined to make a few observations that are more philosophical in nature, namely about the relationship between Tiger and the media.

 There’s been an undercurrent of muted glee in much of the commentary and speculation that has been swirling around Woods over the past week or so.  Quite a few members of the sports media and society page commentators seem to be delighted at finally being able to scratch the finish off of a formerly Teflon athlete.  A lot of the journalists I have read can’t resist repeating a few of the lame jokes that are making the rounds on late-night right now or stooping to include some high-school level innuendoes to round out their commentary. Prevalent throughout is a good deal of sermonizing, the stated idea that Tiger Woods’ hubris has caught up to him at last and now his comeuppance has arrived.

 A theme that keeps getting repeated is the idea of the dual-edged sword: Tiger can’t expect to grow fat off of lucrative endorsement deals that rely on effectively selling himself to the public and then lash out about his privacy being undermined when negative revelations about him come to light. He can’t accept 12 or 13 years worth of fawning profile pieces without expecting to be excoriated when he gets caught in a salacious scandal.

 If you read between the lines it’s a little clearer: We helped make you and we can unmake you too and don’t think there is anything you can do about it.  

 Now, I think on balance Team Tiger hasn’t exactly done a bang-up job of managing this scandal from the get-go and some of his official statements lamenting the “scrutiny” he has received and so forth have shown real naïveté, but I also think that much of the press are going too far in their admonishments. No laws have been broken (so far as we know) no contracts, aside from Woods’ wedding vows, have been breached. The repeated assertion that Woods does in fact owe us all a full explanation doesn’t hold water to me.

 Here’s what needs to be remembered: Woods is the world’s greatest golfer. Golf’s billion dollar man is in an elite stratosphere of global recognizability that only a few other athletes currently share: David Beckham, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and perhaps Usain Bolt. He’s not some reality-TV fabrication like Kate Gosselin who needs the media to sustain him. It’s the public who has sought him out, more than the other way around.

 Further to the point, the public’s interest in Woods and the catalyst to his endorsement deals stem from his abilities on the fairways and putting greens. I don’t recall seeing ads where Woods solicits me to buy products on the basis of him being a paragon of moral virtue. To be sure, Woods has made some effort to cultivate an image as a caring family-man, but that’s not his chief selling point or even necessarily a factor in his popularity. After all, it’s not like he was a crusading politician who made “family-values” the linchpin of his campaign, only to later become embroiled in an unsavoury scandal with prostitutes  now is it?

If you want at least a partial explanation for a good portion of the schadenfreude being steered Tiger’s way (particularly by the sports media) then I would say it comes down to this idea from the media: Tiger Needs to Learn How to Play Ball.

Despite his celebrity and fame Tiger isn’t all that chummy with the press. He isn’t gregarious or loquacious. He hasn’t been particularly amiable towards or trusting of journalists ever since catching flak for telling some non-PC jokes in an interview with Esquire early in his career. He usually stays on-message and gets surly if you try to get him to talk about topics he doesn’t want to discuss. There are plenty of examples of these type of complaints available online, with Dave Perkins’  Toronto Star column being fairly representative.

 Probably the most damning thing you will read about Woods (from a journalist’s viewpoint) is the assertion that no other golfer – and perhaps no other athlete – has been so cognizant of guarding himself through careful PR. A constant complaint about Woods is that very little is known about him as a person, aside from his ruthless competitive drive and robotic efficiency on the golf course. Throughout his professional career Woods has tried to keep himself something of a cipher and if at times that has meant hiding behind a phalanx of handlers and advisors than that is what he has done.

 But now after Tiger’s smash-up, his wife’s Jack Nicholson impersonation and the Us magazine revelations, there is a sense that the palace walls are starting to crash down and a lot of long-simmering complaints about Woods from the media have found the necessary ignition source to boil over.

 I think if this scandal had happened to one of the “good-guy” athletes that the sports press holds in esteem that a lot of the coverage would have been far different, both in tone and in substance. If this had happened to say Wayne Gretzky or Steve Nash, then I think there would be more sympathy and amenability to the notion of letting private matters stay private. A lot of the biting columns I’ve read would probably be elegiac instead, lamenting human frailty and the scourge of temptation and all that.

With all this said though, there is no escape from the reality that Wood’s crash and infidelity would be a huge story regardless of his relationship with the press and the negative coverage that he has received has been aggravated by other factors, with his own actions being chief among them. To be sure, Tiger does also have his supporters in the media, such as Jason Whitlock, who are stepping up to bat for him. However, it’s clear that many journalists and commentators are relishing the chance to sink their teeth into the world’s richest athlete and with so many questions still left unanswered it will be a difficult task to pry them loose.

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