Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tigers Tangles

I’m a little late to the party on Tiger Woods tangle, but now that the news cycle has moved onto something new, I’d like to dissect what happened from a PR perspective instead of a moral one.

It’s difficult to find anyone who considers this week’s “event” (tabloidapolooza and all) a publicity high for Tiger. The old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity doesn’t apply to an athlete whose brand image supercedes that of the sport he plays (or even of all sports, his agent might say), so let’s toss that right away.

The fact is, by maintaining a stubborn strategy of silence, Tiger surrendered complete control over his story to the media, and to those who stand to gain (read: “bar executive”). And that’s just bad PR. Worse still is the involvement of legal counsel in advising on a crisis PR strategy. Last time I checked, lawyers were experts in law, not PR.

It’s not my place to pass judgment on Tiger’s behavior, so I won’t. I am sure that by sticking to his attorney’s advice, Tiger may have avoided even greater consequences for himself and his family. But, and that is a very big but, a global celebrity and sports hero of Tiger’s standing cannot let the TMZs and the National Enquirers mold the stories that will ultimately damage his brand. They already have. Tiger’s position as a brand unto himself demands vigilance and protection, but not silence.

His biggest mistake was attempting to cover up and lie. With bloggers and hacks eeking out a on living celebrity sightings and gossip, this strategy is long dead. What he should have done was fess up, first to the people trying to help him and eventually to the public. People like regret and rehab stories. We seem to relish in others acknowledging their sins and repenting their wicked deeds in a very public and humiliating way. Then we can forgive and move on to the next naughty boy who dipped his quill into an inkwell it didn’t belong.

This is the hand Tiger has dealt for himself. In his line of business, it must be played - at all times, in private matters or otherwise - with an eye towards the public’s perception and mitigating negative PR.

Tiger could have significantly reduced negative coverage simply by being out in front of the story. David Letterman did, and turned bad press on its head. Tiger could have fessed up to Golf Magazine of Golf World instead of allowing some "bar executive" sell her story to US Weekly. But he chose to stay quiet and his silence filled the news vacuum. His cryptic online responses to rumors should have been managed better, not by lawyers but by PR professionals.

In PR, we know that silence is not golden. We also know that once you lose control of the story, the game is lost.

This was one of the few losses Tiger’s ever endured, and most likely his biggest one.

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