Thursday, December 3, 2009

A PR Perspective on the Tiger Woods Debacle

Playing a bad lie: How Tiger botched a PR opportunity
By Ari B. Adler

By not addressing his infidelity right away, Woods let rumors aggravate a bad situation

Sexing, texting and vexing—it’s a perfect storm of reputation destruction, and its latest victim is Tiger Woods. To make matters worse, instead of facing the publicity storm head on and getting control of the story as quickly as possible, he went into hiding. That left the story angles to those less concerned about his best interests.

It’s probably a sad testament to the times, but when Woods’ SUV ran over a fire hydrant and into a tree around 2:30 a.m. one night last week, there were plenty of people who immediately thought, “drunken driving.” When it became clear that wasn’t the case, the rumors started to expand to include painkillers, speeding and his wife chasing him out of the house with a golf club.

While the rumors and the news reports about them began to grow, Woods stayed mum. He would not talk to the press. He would not talk to police. Therefore, instead of having a bad-news story last a couple of days, he has instead been faced with a nonstop, daily thrashing of his reputation. Breaking news alerts and breathless anchors eager to share any update have now given way to the online posting of a voicemail to and “sexts” from an alleged mistress.

This type of rumor, innuendo and celebrity smackdown news has always been a possibility, but it was generally dealt with by PR pros with a shrug and, “Well, it’s the National Enquirer—no one really believes that stuff, anyway.” Now, what used to be considered salacious material best left to the tabloids is finding its way to online powerhouses like the Huffington Post and to mainstream juggernauts like CNN and ESPN.

The tagline from that 1990s cult-classic television show “The X-Files” has never been more relevant. “The truth is out there,” we were told, week after week. These days, however, PR pros need to remember that not only is the truth out there, it’s now available in electronic formats that are easily reproduced and distributed.

That means they need to be even more aggressive—both with their clients and with the media. They need to get clients to be 100 percent upfront with them about every potential PR attack. Then, they need to go on the offensive and get control of the story immediately.

In Woods’ case, the story became the story, which is the last thing he needed. In the statement he finally issued, Woods said, “Personal sins should not require press releases.” He should stick to golf and stop trying to dabble in public relations. Often, in media cases like this, a coverup becomes a bigger story than the initial indiscretion. Though it may be another sad testament to the times, a famous man cheating on his wife is a one- or two-day story. The ones drawn out in the headlines for weeks at a time are those in which only a few details are revealed at first and the rest trickle out.

Consider what would have happened if Tiger Woods had held a press conference upon being released from the hospital. It’s quite likely the basic story would have been:

“Tiger Woods announced today that his car accident occurred after he left his home following an argument with his wife over an extra-marital affair. The golf pro allegedly had a long-term relationship with a woman he met just months before his wife gave birth to their daughter. Woods said he is working through the matter with his wife and asked for privacy for all parties involved to assist in his family’s healing process.”

Anyone going on the offensive after that would have been seen as opportunistic and risked their reputations. By confessing and repenting publicly with the whole story, Woods would have positioned himself as a potential victim.

Going on the offensive isn’t going to change the facts, but it will make them less captivating and, therefore, less newsworthy. Besides, with today’s incredible-story-of-the-minute news industry and their attention-deficient audiences, it never takes long for the spotlight to shift.

Ari B. Adler is a media relations professional with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.

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