PR experts: Tiger’s apology just the first step

When does an apology become a performance so significant that it draws scrutiny usually reserved for a State of the Union address?

When it’s delivered by Tiger Woods – a man whose silence stretched three months – and the world wonders what has become of his game and once-enchanted life.

In a highly choreographed performance, in which crisis-management experts say not a word or action went unscripted, Woods took the first step to resume his career, on the course as well as off it.

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During a live, televised broadcast from TPC Sawgrass, he apologized to his many constituencies and sought to win back the support of fans and the confidence of sponsors. But with no shortage of critics, all offering varying opinions about his 14-minute statement, it’s difficult to gauge the immediate impact Woods’ message will have on his recovery. Evaluations ranged from contrite to contrived, and the only consensus seemed to be that the court of public opinion needs more evidence before forgiving Woods or condemning him.

Alan Towers, a corporate-reputation consultant, sees parallels between the woes of Woods – essentially, a one-man conglomerate – and the travails some industry icons have endured.

“Serious crisis in the corporate world usually goes one of two ways,” Towers said. “Companies say all the right things, but go back to their old ways and slowly decline. Or, they really change their culture and get another chance.

“If (Woods is) just playing to the crowd, his future is likely to be like his past. But if he’s sincerely examining his life, this introspection can produce dramatic change.”

As much as Woods’ apology captivated a worldwide audience, the orchestration of his address was just as intriguing.

photo

Media representatives from around the world gather around televisions in a hotel ballroom at Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to watch Tiger Woods' make his first public statement in three months on the heels of his November 2009 SUV accident inside Isleworth. (Feb. 19, 2010)

Some observers say the timing, which occurred during the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, overshadowed the tournament sponsored by the company that was among the first to sever endorsement ties with Woods. But his handlers insist the coincidence wasn’t vindictive, saying Woods needed to deliver his apology when he had the chance during a short break in his rehabilitation treatment.

There also was outrage among media members who objected to Woods’ refusal to field questions following his statement. Some public-relations experts called the decision to shut out the media a tactical mistake.

T.J. Walker, a crisis-management counselor, gave Woods’ performance a “B-plus” for exhibiting the “right emotional tone” and acknowledging “all the charges leveled against him.” But he graded Woods’ public-relations strategy with a “C” for not holding a Q&A session.

“If he doesn’t de-fang the media beast, it’s going to keep chewing on his leg,” Walker said. Furthermore, he added, Woods’ defiance gives credence to the perception that he’s above societal rules that govern everyone else.

“He doesn’t have to answer every question, but he has to expose himself to scrutiny, especially when everyone else in public life does it,” Walker said.

But Towers, who described Woods’ apology as a two-part re-entry into public life, called the calculated delivery a “brilliant reputation-recovery strategy.” He said many people likely expected Woods to simply apologize and provide some timetable for a return to competition. Instead, Woods announced a return to therapy and asked for help from others to rebuild his life.

“I think his goal was to develop a sense of sympathy . . . and soften up the beaches for a future assault,” Towers said.

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Tiger Woods during Friday's statement.

As far as complaints that Woods’ performance was too contrived or robotic, Towers said that’s the price of a staged act, but one he insists was necessary. In all likelihood, Towers said Woods played a large role in creating his script, then received substantial coaching (look into the camera when saying, “I am sorry”) and direction (hug your mother and close friends upon completion).

“Nothing is left to chance in these circumstances,” Towers said. “But just because he worked very hard presenting it, that doesn’t change its sincerity.”

Eventually, experts say, Woods will need to answer questions. And though he has made it clear he won’t discuss private matters, some say he’ll need to explain more than his birdies and bogeys.

“He could say, ‘The hell with all you people’ and become the Barry Bonds of golf, but everything about his history indicates that he cares about his reputation,” Walker said.

Until it is better repaired, sports-marketing experts say not to expect new endorsement deals for Woods.

“I do not see any other sponsors rushing in . . . as it is very uncertain as to when he will return, and how he will be able to handle the intense scrutiny he will face,” said George Belch, chair of San Diego State University’s department of marketing.

But ultimately, Woods likely won’t be embraced again by sponsors and fans until he demonstrates the ability to do what he once did best: Win golf tournaments.

Said Rick Burton, the David B. Falk distinguished professor of sport management at Syracuse University: “They’re all waiting to see what kind of golfer he’ll be when he gets back.”

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