Friday, July 2, 2010

Rebuilding images and empires

Stories about Tiger Woods are fewer and far between.


Things should change in the coming days, however. If the divorce court hearing proceeds as planned in Florida, pundits will once again evaluate whether image rehab is on course.

At least one reporter got the ball rolling early with an excellent overview.

Expect it to be a tough time for sports writers - given the World Cup finals, the All Star Game and the Tour de France all occurring at the same time. That would leave radaroline, TMZ, the NY Post and others of similar ilk to provide coverage. Yuck. (And, then there is Mel Gibson).

So, what is - or will be - missing from the analysis? Again, this is a column about public relations, so the examination is focused on the impact of reputation, and the lessons we in PR can learn to counsel our clients.

No. 1: Total impact. The Woods empire crumbled. No one has really looked at how many people lost their jobs or the revenue lost by businesses as endorsement deals ended, tournaments saw lower turnouts, few Nike golf balls sold, etc.

No. 2: The kids. No, not Tiger's and Elin's. What lessons were learned by the thousands of youngsters who began playing golf because of Tiger? The ones who play golf through his foundation? The ones who bask in the gifts and events from his foundation? Yes, we know this was another example of why children should not idolize athletes. (One exception: You can go ahead and idolize recently deceased UCLA basketball coach John Wooden). But Tiger shows no sign of slowing down his foundation or his visibility with it, as evidenced by a recent gig with Bon Jovi. While most pundits will focus on whether Tiger can rebuild his image through his golf play and examine how other athletes-in-trouble have fared, they haven't examined how TW Foundation scholarship recipients are reconciling who is giving them money for college, or why Woods is even still connected to a foundation that presumably promotes and rewards ethics and good behavior. Who is showing up at fund-raisers to be part of Tiger?

For PR professionals, the Woods saga is a gold mine for education and experience. Some of the takeaways, so far:

  1. People still want to forgive. If you are representing someone who has a "hint" of goodness that's demonstrated in public, the masses will wait to see that person "come around." Contrite works. Apologies work. "I've changed" works. Give it some time. Just look at Elliott Spitzer. Yet, if someone appears to be a permanent bad boy or girl (i.e. Lindsay Lohan) with no hope for recovery, feel free to bail.

  2. Attention spans are growing shorter. Our world is so wired, and overflowing with information, that we constantly "move on" to the next saga or story. Our fascination with individuals and their tribulations are either compartmentalized ("I'm not one to dwell in this area") or there are plenty of celebs who just seem to get into trouble. For all we know about Tiger, the latest Mel Gibson saga seems worse - right now!

  3. History softens the image. Although anyone can research a sorted past on Google, the public doesn't lift a finger to "go back" on someone's life. As time passes, a person's past is reduced to fewer and fewer lines of definition. We define our Presidents in assigned adjectives. FDR was the "New Deal" president. Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson and so on. Tiger will be remembered as a sports figure, first. His personal travails will become less and less important as his wins amass.

  4. Losses can be calculated. Although every PR pro criticized Woods' actions (or, inaction) early in the scandal, the silence and hiding seemed to work. Refusing to issue statements or answering media questions quickly eliminated the major aspect of the scandal - the numerous women telling their side of their alleged relationship with Tiger. If Tiger acknowledged anything more than "transgressions," additional details would simply provide more fuel for the fire. Whether this tactic works for the next person in trouble should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

All of this now tells us that if you have a client in trouble or a crisis communications problem that doesn't involve a publicly traded company, the following rules of engagement may be in play:

  • The public and the media may not pursue all penetrating questions, or explore more in-depth "societal" questions. Of course, be prepared for them.

  • Unless you are representing someone like Octomom or Bernard Madoff, you stand a very good chance of counseling your client through any crisis or reputation nightmare. Preach patience and sticking to message.

So, now about BP........

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