Sunday, March 28, 2010

What to expect when Tiger hits Augusta

It has become a public relations case study, unfolding before our very eyes. An international figure facing a major personal crisis. With the Masters golf tournament approaching, the eyes of all my public relations colleagues will be glued to the TV and other news mediums to see what happens next.

I submit the Tiger Woods story is perhaps one of the most unique, from a public relations standpoint. And, no one has been right or offered the perfect public relations solution. Myself included.

Early in this saga, within the first few days and weeks of the famous Thanksgiving night car crash, some news columnists suggested this story was none of our business. I said here they were wrong and I think that argument has since been proven ridiculous. The actions of a top CEO - Tiger is head of a major business enterprise - can have significant consequences if they impact the operations and financial outcomes. In Tiger's case, he had built an image that was integral to the success of his enterprise. That image included being a family man and someone we could respect because he appeared to be living his life in an ethical manner.

So, for us PR folks, we now are wondering how Tiger will recover, and how much he can recover. This is what we have seen from Tiger, so far: Silence, entering rehab, a very scripted public apology, back to rehab, an announcement he'll return to golf, two interviews with time limitations ("hope fans like me and some topics are still a private matter"), Tiger seen swinging a golf club at Augusta.

The next huge step is when he returns to the links. Tiger must play golf. That is his business, both from the prize money of a tournament and from the endorsements. He lost all but two major sponsors.

Tiger was very shrewd in selecting the Masters for his return. Fan decorum rules at this prestigious course will help control any public outbursts that would be captured on camera. At least, around the links. Augusta can't control what happens outside, or when the world's media roam the course to interview fans. A few other writers have their own view of why Augusta is a prime location for Tiger.

Here is my prediction. The stories at Augusta will be (a) fan reaction and countless "man-on-the-street" interviews, (b) Tiger's game - can he play under this stress?, (c) endless recaps of Tiger's saga, (d) a look at the media covering this event, (e) why other players are upset by the distraction, (f) oh, yeah, the guy who won the 2010 Masters - and it won't be Tiger, and (g) assessments after assessments of how did Tiger fare? And multiple stories in between. Will Tiger take Arnold Palmer's advice to be more open with the media?

What is not known is whether Tiger will visit the press room during the match to take questions. He'll have to if he wins. Will CBS call him into the booth? Likely. But don't expect much.

In my view, the days following the Masters will be the most important. Ari Fleischer won't be there to guide him. Tiger will have gotten this "first-game-back" off his back and will be looking for normalcy on the horizon. And that includes his family.

No, the most crucial days for Tiger and the rebuilding of his empire will be following Augusta. The fan reaction at the next golf tournament, his ability to control his message, will he remain married and his ability to show remorse - in a genuine way.