Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is it Tiger Time Yet?

Last night in my email was a link to this from the blog:

It’s What You Do Next That Counts

A Lesson from Tiger Woods from the series What Not To Do

by Lou Pierce

Big Idea Company

TIGER small ad

I couldn’t help but cringe. There it was. On the very weekend that Accenture announced it was parting ways with Tiger Woods, was this print ad in the Harvard Business Review.

The ad shows Tiger hovering over his golf ball which is precariously perched on the edge of a rocky cliff. The message is clear: We all get into trouble from time-to-time. But, “it’s what you do next that counts.”

Ironic? You bet. Here’s this phenomenal athlete who has an uncanny knack for getting out of trouble on the golf course, but is seemingly helpless to do so in the trickier world of public relations. But, is Tiger really helpless? Or, is the situation just hopeless?

I’m not chiming in here to beat a dead horse. It’s obvious that Tiger Woods’ ongoing saga is bad for golf and bad for him. But, if there’s anything good to come of this, it’s a lesson in public relations.

Tiger Woods is arguably the best professional golfer in history. But, like all of us, he is human and therefore prone to embarrassment when things go wrong. There’s no doubt that he will eventually return to the golf course and earn more championships and titles before retiring. But, in the meantime he’s done everything he can to make the mess he’s currently in, as messy as possible.

Forget the small cadre of idiots who say that Tiger as a brand will be back someday, bigger and better than before. Those people are either in denial or maneuvering for a job on Tiger’s new brand-building team. Yes, he will resume his rightful place as the world’s greatest golfer – there’s utterly no doubt about that. But, the Tiger brand? Well, that will never be the same.

Why does this matter to me and to you? Well, it matters if you are in the public relations business. And you’re in the public relations business if you represent a large organization, a small business or an individual performer or political candidate. It matters because there are important lessons to be learned from this saga and the way it has evolved.

Here’s the first lesson: As a carefully-crafted public brand, Tiger Woods never had the option of keeping the sordid details of this public incident to himself. His deal with the public, is to be public. And He’s profited greatly from this arrangement. But now that people are curious about what’s happened and demand to know more, he has withdrawn without comment. This, in turn, has forced the media to fill the void with sometimes questionable information from other sources. It’s tawdry, and getting more tawdry.

Can Tiger Woods erase all of his public relations problems simply by making a statement, a fairly detailed statement that includes contrition and remorse? No. He can’t. Not in this case. Evidence that his public image is contrived and wholly at odds with who he really is has become overwhelming.

But he can minimize the damage. He should choose his place and time, admit to his failings just once and in fair detail, and then enter into a clinic or program of some kind to demonstrate his commitment to changing – though I don’t know if there is such a thing for philandering. If he doesn’t do something like this soon, things will continue to spiral out of control.

Here is the second lesson: The Tiger Woods brand was built upon a contrived set of characteristics that were completely inconsistent with who he really is. We all know that now. So, what can his handlers do? Can they ask for forgiveness? Yes. But, the shear scope of his inconsistent behavior is breathtaking. Is every woman who has “confessed” a relationship with Tiger Woods being honest? We’ll never know. And, until Tiger talks, we’ll never be in a position to form an objective opinion. Confirm it all. Deny it all. But talk, Tiger. Talk.

Finally, here is the third and most important lesson of all. It’s not about Tiger. It’s about our profession as public relations executives: like any profession, great public relations people have choices to make. In the legal field, for example, there are plenty of attorneys who, for ethical reasons, will not defend someone whom they know to be guilty. This is not to say that they would deny anyone a fair trial. It’s just to say that they would not feel good about themselves if they defended someone whom they know to be guilty. In our field, we too have choices to make. When we find ourselves lying, rather than ‘spinning;’ when we support and enable ongoing and egregious behavior because we make good money by doing it, something is wrong.

Tiger Woods will be back. The new Tiger Woods will be awesome – the world’s greatest golfer. He will bring with him television ratings, fans and lots of momentous new achievements. But, it will be a new Tiger Woods. The endorsements will be limited to his field of expertise. They will not include financial institutions or other types of businesses that require consumer confidence and transparency. He will live rich and live well – as he deserves. His handlers will even develop and exploit a new image of Tiger – one that is consistent with reality. And, that will be both ethical and fine. After all, ‘it’s what you do next that counts.’

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