“I’m certain it will be an outstanding event,” he said on Monday, “and I’m very sorry that I can’t be there.”
The decision to remain shuttered from public view continues a pattern by golf’s often-private mega star and will likely turn up the volume on a growing controversy. In refusing to speak publicly, marketing and crisis-management experts say, Woods has failed to learn from high-profile athletes who faced media scrutiny before.
Athletes such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who faced a sexual-assault charge in 2003.
“If you take the long view, I think Kobe Bryant is the best example of how to turn this kind of thing around,” said Michael Gordon of Group Gordon Strategic Communications in New York.
Viewed through the prism of what Bryant did right—and what others have done wrong—Gordon believes that Woods “is failing PR 101.”
It has been widely reported that Woods was backing out of his driveway at 2:25 a.m. on Friday when his black Cadillac Escalade ran over a fire hydrant and struck a tree in a neighboring yard.
His wife, Elin Nordegren, told authorities that she used a golf club to break through a window and remove him from the vehicle. Woods suffered injuries that included cuts to his face.
In the absence of further details, the incident has become fodder for supermarket tabloids and the Internet with speculation about Woods having an affair and arguing with his wife.
So far, he has responded with brief statements on his web site, saying the accident was “my fault” and “obviously embarrassing,” adding: “This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way.”
His comments have raised more questions than they have answered, and he has repeatedly turned away police seeking a follow-up interview.
“From a PR point of view, it’s a disaster,” said Ken Sunshine, president of Sunshine, Sachs & Associates, a New York public-relations firm. “It looks like you’re covering up something, and it just adds to this feeding frenzy that’s developed in the last 72 hours.”
Woods differs from other athletes besieged by media in a significant way: He stands accused of no crime. But marketers say he can employ the same strategies that Bryant used six years ago, accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Colorado hotel room.
Though Bryant and his attorneys insisted he was innocent from the start, McDonald’s and Nutella chose not to renew lucrative endorsement contracts with him.
A tearful Bryant stepped before the cameras to say that, while not guilty of criminal behavior, he had committed adultery.
“It was a risk both personally and professionally, but it was something he had to address,” said marketer Ben Sturner of the Leverage Agency in New York. “You need to come clean and talk to your fan base. I think people respect that.”
The assault charge against Bryant was ultimately dismissed and, as Sturner noted, his picture recently graced the front of the Nike store in Manhattan. Marketers say the Lakers star hastened the rehabilitation of his image by following a golden rule: Get out in front of the story.
It was a tactic that University of Southern California coach Pete Carroll employed—in far-less-serious circumstances—after the controversial ending to Saturday night’s USC-University of California Los Angeles football game, explaining his decision to throw long with a big lead even before reporters asked.
“Fans and consumers, they forgive,” Sturner said. “But they’re going to be less likely to forgive if you don’t come forward.”
A number of celebrity athletes have discovered as much in recent years.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis faced criticism at Super Bowl XXXV when he refused to discuss charges stemming from a street fight that left two men dead the year before. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for giving police misleading information during the investigation.
Marion Jones suffered a public backlash in connection with reports of steroid use. The Olympic sprinter initially denied wrongdoing, lashing out at the media with help from hired political consultant Chris Lehane. Later, fans seemed to reject her tearful admission of guilt.
“It’s one thing to do bad acts,” Gordon said. “It’s another to lie about them.”
But there can be limits to speaking freely.
Frank and Jamie McCourt might have gone too far, airing details of their divorce while the Dodgers were in the playoffs. In other cases, sports figures have been restricted from talking because of impending legal matters.
There has been a hint of that with Woods. He has hired a lawyer, and police are continuing to investigate the incident. But experts cite Bryant’s case, insisting lawyers and marketers can devise a suitable compromise.
Reporters had hoped to approach Woods during the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks this week. With his participation in that tournament—and Monday’s news conference—canceled, the questions will have to wait.
Marketers know that Woods has always guarded his life away from golf—he has a yacht called “Privacy” —but believe a change is in order.
“There is the court of law and the court of public opinion,” said Ronn Torossian of 5W Public Relations in New York. “The ultimate PR question is: At what point does he answer these questions and make these doubters go away to ensure his legacy and his earnings?”
Woods could also learn a lot from David Letterman, media experts say.
Instead of a vague statement that left many questions unanswered, the late-night comic went very public with his admission of bad behavior, and even cracked a few jokes at his own expense. After a few days, everyone moved on.
“Men and women have been forgiven by their public for misbehavior or misstepping, and even philandering,” said Gene Grabowski, who guides high-profile figures through public-relations crises as a senior vice president with Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications.
“But what they have never been forgiven for is the cover-up,” he said.
Of course, Woods doesn’t have his own talk show, and a public mea culpa isn’t his style, anyway. The world’s most famous athlete and No. 1 golfer goes to great lengths to guard his image, on and off the course. He steers clear of anything with even a hint of controversy, anything that would raise an eyebrow.
“It’s his privilege not to address the other innuendoes and reports that have surfaced over the last three or four days,” said Steve Rosner, cofounder of 16W Marketing. “But by not addressing them, I believe he has set up a situation where the story will continue to be the story.”
Grabowski, whose clients have included Roger Clemens, agreed.
“Tiger risks making this a bigger issue than it has to be,” he said. “And bringing greater embarrassment to his family.”
While Tiger Woods’s withdrawal from the tournament may spare him from facing reporters for now, he is almost certain to be questioned about it at the end of January, when he is likely to make his 2010 debut at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California.
Letterman’s indiscretions had all the makings of a long-running tabloid cover story. While not telling all, the married father admitted he’d had sex with women who worked on his show, with one of the trysts leading to an alleged blackmail plot.
By revealing that himself, Letterman followed the No. 1 rule in crisis communication: Take control of the story. (With AP)