Tiger in the Tank
I'd always admired golfing great Tiger Woods for three reasons: (1) his brilliance on the golf course, (2) his impeccable elegance, and (3) his tightly controlled and shadowy personal life about which I was delighted to know nothing beyond the fact that he lived in Florida and owned a megayacht.
Initial reports out of Florida on Friday, Nov. 27, by the usually reliable Associated Press described Woods as being seriously injured in a car accident. As so often happens, the pathetic, aggressive media—more anxious to get it out than get it right—got it dead wrong. He had minor facial lacerations and was released from the hospital later that day.
"Media is the plural of mediocre," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jimmy Breslin.
When I read that the Woods’ Escalade sped out of the driveway in the wee hours of the a.m., hit a fire hydrant and ended up hugging a tree with Woods unhurt, I assumed it was some kind of domestic spat and thought no more about it. This was none of my business.
But quickly the story began to grow legs and snowball. The world watched transfixed as a reputation, a marriage and a billion-dollar enterprise imploded.
Being a businessperson, my thoughts were (and are) continually with Woods’ sponsors—Nike, Gatorade, Accenture, Gillette and the others—who were paying $105 million a year for pure excellence and got themselves a serial adulterer.
How should the Woods organization have dealt with them?
The PR Baseball Game
Public Relations is like baseball—all about control. To win, the team in the field must control the ball at all times, while batters and runners are out to totally disrupt that control.
To avoid having an minor embarrassment turn into a PR crisis, the object is to control the media until a new and more lurid event explodes and the sad sack Web, print and broadcast peeping Toms—cloaking themselves in the mantel of, ahem, "journalism"—roar off after the new story in a Keystone Kops-like chase to sell more Toyotas, tampons and toothpaste.
To maintain control, Tiger Woods opted to hunker down until the brouhaha blew over. The accident happened on a private road within his gated community, and the only one hurt was the driver. Woods refused to talk to police, and on Nov. 29 put a statement out on his Web site, which said in part:
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 should have been his entire statement. However in the middle of his plea for privacy, he added this sentence:
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.
This was throwing down the gauntlet. For the tabloids and gossip media, here was the invitation to a Tiger hunt on a scale not seen since the heyday of the Raj.
Two days later, claiming injuries, Woods pulled out of his own golf tournament—the Chevron World Challenge golf tournament, scheduled for that weekend in California, the beneficiary being the Tiger Woods Foundation.
The Bimbo Eruption
Within a day, the National Enquirer broke the story of Woods’ alleged philandering with an after-hours club hostess named Rachel Uchitel. This was followed by a string of women—14 at last count—confessing to liaisons with Woods in cars, hotels, the Woods’ marital bed when his wife was out of town and at tournament venues all over the world.
Suddenly this bevy of birdies was all over the magazines, supermarket tabs and gossip TV. Some wanted to sell their stories. Others allegedly wanted millions for their silence. Still others released voice mail, Tiger’s sex texts and commentary on his sexual performance. Most seemed to bask in their 15 minutes of fame.
Tiger Woods and his women were front-page stories in The New York Post for 20 consecutive days starting Nov. 30.
Raunchy Tiger jokes were all over late-night TV and the Internet, and a set of Tiger Woods Commemorative Mistress Plates was offered on YouTube.
In a bizarre twist, the December Golf Digest (a Tiger Woods sponsor) hit the newsstands with a cover depicting Tiger Woods and President Obama intently studying a putt. The cover line: "10 Tips Obama Can Take from Tiger." This jibed with Keith Olbermann’s throwaway line on MSNBC, "Tiger is having trouble with his putz."
This incredible reality show was entirely authored by Tiger Woods. Check the publicity photo at right. Then add to this depiction of a happy family with children and dogs the myriad of highly charged accounts, interviews and photos of tawdry, scantily clad women, and you not only sell newspapers and magazines big time, but also enjoy astronomical TV ratings and zillions of Internet hits. Google "'Tiger Woods' and women," and you’ll get 32.2 million entries.
Like Watergate, Monica Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson, this story has a very long fuse. When an icon is disgraced, it makes us all feel virtuous.
The PR Ramifications
This saga started with a curious car crash, morphed into a PR crisis, and wound up as a full-fledged personal and professional catastrophe.
Early on, public relations experts and media pundits—including CNBC’s brash Larry Kudlow—counseled that Tiger should "fess up" and get out in front of this story or his $100 million endorsements would be in jeopardy. In the words of Michael Levine in "Guerilla P.R. 2.0":
One of the single most important points to keep in mind when facing a negative situation of your own is to follow the old dictum: "The best defense is a good offense. You must never go on the defensive. By anticipating negative questions you can stand ready with positives."
Instead of going on the offensive, Woods continued to remain out of sight in his Florida mansion, releasing an occasional whiny mea culpa on his Web site and pleading for privacy.
How Do You Deal With a Massive
PR Catastrophe? Try a Hail Mary Pass
In football, the Hail Mary is a razzle-dazzle long pass employed in desperate, last-minute situations. There's only a slim chance of success, but it's the only hope to possibly save a losing situation.
Woods had financial arrangements with 14 major organizations that paid him a reported $105 million a year. In addition, they spent millions more creating commercials, Web sites and print ads featuring Woods, while millions more went toward purchasing media. They were:
Accenture — AT&T — American Express — EA Sports (Electronic Arts) — Gatorade — Gillette — Golf Digest — NetJets — Nike Golf — Tag Heuer Watches — Tatweer: The Tiger Woods Dubai — TLC Laser Eye Centers — Upper Deck (sports collectibles) — PGA TOUR (partner)
The car crash occurred on Nov. 27. All sponsors voiced support for Woods.
However, within two days of the accident, every single TV commercial featuring Tiger Woods was off the air. With the prospect of a huge scandal dominating the media, Tiger Woods showing up on a television screen would be a joke—a total distraction overpowering the product being sold. Running TV commercials at this juncture would have been a total waste of money and an insult to viewers’ intelligence.
On Dec. 9, Gatorade dropped the first shoe by discontinuing its Tiger Woods-themed beverage. "We decided several months ago to discontinue Gatorade Tiger Focus along with some other products," said the PepsiCo-owned company, "to make room for our planned series of innovative products in 2010."
The real problem for Gatorade may have been its tagline: Is it in you?
December 12: The Pivotal Day
On Dec. 12, Gillette made a low-key and genteel announcement that it was scaling back its use of Woods. "As Tiger takes a break from the public eye, we will support his desire for privacy by limiting his role in our marketing programs," said Gillette, a division of Procter & Gamble.
From Woods’ Web site on Dec. 12, announcing his indefinite hiatus from golf:
I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children. I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try.
I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good people at my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and my fellow competitors, for their understanding. What's most important now is that my family has the time, privacy, and safe haven we will need for personal healing.
After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person.
Again, I ask for privacy for my family and I am especially grateful for all those who have offered compassion and concern during this difficult period.
Tiger's Missing Hail Mary
Woods is reportedly worth a billion dollars. Presumably he doesn't need money. If he and his advisers had any cojones, here's the copy they would have run in a fourth paragraph:
Obviously I feel terrible about this. The only way I can make this right for my loyal business partners is to tell them to summarily suspend our contractual arrangements and immediately cease all payments to the Tiger Woods Corporation until some mutually agreeable time in the future.
With just 47 words, Woods would very likely have improved his tattered image somewhat. He would have come across at least as a gentleman in business—an honorable person willing to take a huge financial loss because he's deeply committed to what’s best for his customers.
Does precedent exist for such a dramatic move? When football sportscaster John Madden made the surprise announcement of his retirement from NBC, his agent, Sandy Montag, offered sponsors—Ace Hardware, Verizon, Tinactin, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, MCI International and KCBS Radio in San Francisco—the opportunity to break their contracts. None took him up on the offer.
What's proposed here isn't an offer but a statement—a done deal, fait accompli.
If Woods offered contract cancellations, this would further embarrass his sponsors. The ball would be in their court, forcing them into the media glare to publicly make an ugly choice that wouldn't be universally popular whatever was decided.
With this statement the decision would be made for them. In effect, they couldn't fire Woods because he'd have resigned.
This would set up the possibility—however remote—of the relationship continuing at some future time after the PR tsunami receded and Woods was back to his winning ways on the golf course.
It was the only honorable thing to do. It would allow the sponsors to quietly fade from view and come up with alternative marketing plans. Those that wished to continue could do so.
Meanwhile, a lot of folks would think, "Hey, maybe Tiger’s really a good guy."
Accenture Trashes Tiger
In the past year, Accenture spent $50 million on advertising in the United States alone, and 83 percent of that exposure featured Tiger Woods. There was no way the company could continue with Tiger Woods. However, the Hail Mary statement might have ameliorated Accenture’s response.
The next day, Accenture released the following statement:
Given the circumstances of the last two weeks, after careful consideration and analysis, the company has determined that he is no longer the right representative for its advertising.
"No longer the right representative for its advertising ..." That’s devastating!
On Dec. 17, The New York Times ran Brian Stelter’s front-page story, "Accenture, as if Tiger Woods Were Never There." It described in detail how the company is turning Tiger Woods into a nonperson—expunging every trace of the world’s greatest athlete internally and externally and trying to move on.
Why the Total Collapse?
In The Wall Street Journal of Dec. 8, Reed Albergotti profiled Mark Steinberg of IMG, an agency in Cleveland and Woods’ manager for the past 12 years. Steinberg, 42, is a graduate of the University of Illinois Law School. Two key paragraphs:
He hired Mark NeJame, the most prominent criminal-defense attorney in the Orlando area, to handle Mr. Woods's defense [in the matter of the car wreck], which has resulted in a $164 ticket.
According to people familiar with the situation, Mr. Woods's camp also has retained Lavely & Singer, a Los Angeles law firm known for representing Hollywood stars. One person says the firm is working on a deal that would pay Rachel Uchitel, a woman who has been alleged in published reports to have had an affair with Mr. Woods, in exchange for not talking to the media. Representatives from Lavely & Singer, Ms. Uchitel and Mr. Woods declined to comment.
This is a case of a lawyer hiring lawyers to contain a story including the possible payment of hush money. Just as it’s folly to allow bean counters to make marketing decisions, the same principle applies to lawyers directing a PR crisis.
In a PR crisis, fire off an SOS to a consummate PR organization—Edelman, Ruder Finn, Hill & Knowlton or Bob Dillenschneider—and let a professional take charge.
Alas, Mark Steinberg’s piece of the annual revenue from Tiger Woods’ sponsors must be somewhere between $10 million to $15 million. Would he not want to try and hang on to at least some of this gravy by hunkering down and hoping against hope all the other shoes don’t drop? In short, isn’t Steinberg’s agenda at variance with Tiger’s?
But in the hierarchy of loyalty in business, the customer is first. Woods’ sullen seclusion, silence and inaction subjected his remaining sponsors to the equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. That’s no way to treat a customer.
On Dec. 17, a number of sources stated that Elin Woods was planning to file for divorce and move to the new home she recently purchased in Sweden under her own name.
This is the best possible outcome for Tiger. After a decent interval, he can emerge from exile and go on Oprah, Dr. Phil and/or Charlie Rose to confess that he was a sex addict and is undergoing treatment. Whereupon a prurient and forgiving public would gush, "Oh, he’s a sex addict and he’s getting help. Isn’t that wonderful!"
Gradually he can begin to get on with his golf and hopefully start winning again. Imagine the media frenzy and TV ratings that his first forays back into professional golf would spark. New sponsors will show up on his doorstep, his career will once again take off and he will be bigger—and richer—than ever.
P.S. For what it’s worth, in the Chinese calendar, 2010 is the year of the tiger.