I don't usually like to jump onto celebrity news bandwagons, but the media melee around Tiger Woods' public admission of his personal "transgressions" holds valuable lessons for all of us on how to most effectively protect the integrity of a brand.
Tiger is both a role model and a brand superhero. The fact that he's seemingly invincible on the golf course and in the branding world is what makes it difficult for his fans to accept that he's actually human, like the rest of us. As with everybody else, he's not impervious to making mistakes--or, rather, getting caught making mistakes.
And just like the long list of celebrities before him caught in the public firestorm--Michael Phelps smoking pot, David Letterman canoodling with a co-worker and, most recently, Alex Rodriguez's womanizing and steroid use--Tiger needs to pounce into crisis management mode to preserve his brand's value among current and prospective sponsors.
Luckily, fans are generally forgiving. The best way to win them back is with a skilled public relations campaign that goes beyond just a few public statements.
"Brand suicide" isn't so cut and dried
It can take years to build a brand, but just minutes to destroy it. Brand stewards and spokespeople can be a brand's own worst enemy by inadvertently inflicting wounds that could lead to the brand's untimely demise.
Tiger's situation is a case in point--or is it? My bet is that Tiger will survive this learning moment the same way that so many other flawed brand superheroes have (think Martha Stewart, Michael Milken and Donald Trump). Want to know why?
In addition to the forgiving nature of the American public, sponsors have a relatively high tolerance for misconduct, and they rarely cancel contracts unless their spokesperson broke the law or is accused of an act so vile the mere accusation does irreparable damage (we all remember Kobe Bryant). Kellogg's may have pulled Phelps' contract after his bong photo appeared. But a few months after the "bong-gate" scandal, Phelps inked a deal to promote aquatic headphone company H20 Audio.
Focus customer's hate on the sin, not the sinner
Public sentiment and judgment is often based on how a company, person or brand responds to a crisis, and not necessarily on what the offender allegedly did. Addressing an issue head-on (admitting nothing if you don't want to) and saying you are sorry makes it much easier to sway attention--assuming you have the good sense to provide a comment in a timely fashion, that is.
Crisis management planning
Most airlines don't go out of business following crashes, and Amazon.com didn't go out of business after mistakenly removing gay and lesbian titles from its virtual shelves.
In most cases, once a company discovers a potential threat to its brand (a threat defined as an incident that has the potential to severely disrupt its business), it prepares in advance. If you have both an operational and a communications response, you will hopefully maintain confidence in your brand among key stakeholders such as customers, employees, investors and suppliers.
While Phelps, Letterman, A-Rod and Martha clearly took some brand shrapnel along the way for their wrongdoings, they all ended up winning the war waged against their brand because they followed a few simple but critical crisis management principles that every company should follow. These brand superheroes weren't perfect in crisis-managing their situations, but they did enough right to get out of brand purgatory.
You can run, but you can't hide
Tiger waited way too long to clarify what happened. Several days passed as unsubstantiated information was dispersed by the media. Even if you don't have much to say, commenting early will help put you in control of the story.
No comment or too little comment from you gives others permission to comment on your behalf, leaving more room for rumor and speculation. I'm not necessarily a fan of Gov. David Patterson (D-N.Y.), but I do think it was wise of him to preemptively disclose his past extramarital affairs with the media prior to taking the oath of office for a position that was disgraced by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (aka "Client 9"). By speaking up before the media could, Patterson made his "transgressions" virtually a non-issue and a one-day story.
David Letterman handled his confession quite brilliantly. By getting out ahead of the situation, he was able to better control the stories that ensued. Letterman was smart to maintain a business-as-usual strategy. Tiger should have done that, too. Canceling appearances and being a shut-in only spawns more speculation and misinformation. Tiger's decision to be a no-show at his own charity golf tournament was a mistake.
Avoid doublespeak and shore up the information leaks
Customers aren't looking for confessions, but they are looking for an acknowledgement and quick response to the issue at hand, at least. And they don't want doublespeak or evasive language. From Tiger's "transgressions" to Bill Clinton's redefinition of sex or former presidential candidate John Edwards' "terrible mistake," euphemisms will not endear you to the public faster.
It is also important to make sure your advisors (legal, PR, finance) and their teams do not speak with outsiders or media. Unauthorized leaks of information beget rumor and speculation, which help drive additional, unwanted and often inaccurate media coverage. In Tiger's case, the additional rumors of more mistresses and pending negotiations to give his wife a financial incentive to stay with him reflect a glaring error in his crisis management strategy.
If I were Tiger's advisor, I would have relied less on his fan website to post statements. Instead, I would have suggested that he choose one reputable media outlet or reporter he trusts (not TMZ) to provide a statement and show a willingness to answer a few questions that are vetted and agreed to in advance. I also would have advised that he be more forthcoming about his situation from the start. Now his only recourse is an exclusive TV interview to set the record straight. Oprah or Larry King, anyone? Or maybe the Today show? It doesn't matter: we've seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.
Named one of the top "40 Under 40" by industry touchstone PR Week, Aaron Kwittken is the founder and CEO of boutique public relations agency Kwittken & Company. In just four years, he has rapidly grown the company into a competitive industry player, boasting a roster of iconic brands and a staff of multi-specialists.