Bad Approach: Tiger’s Evasiveness Lands Him in the Rough
December 7, 2009
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.