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Rebuilding a Reputation

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By Rick Kelly, Director of Crisis Communications, Triad Strategies

Tiger Woods’ first post-scandal public appearance drew enormous media attention.  Every pundit and PR pro from Sawgrass to Spyglass has offered a recipe for “what Tiger should do” or “what Tiger should have done.” Most have missed the mark.

The initial prescriptions consisted of “getting out in front of” the issue, presumably meaning that Woods should have immediately thrown himself at the feet of the media, done his mea culpa, established the Tiger Woods Marital Fidelity Foundation, appeared on Oprah and 60 Minutes and wrapped it all up in a tidy package before the end of the first news cycle.  Whew, reputation saved.

In retrospect, what he would have been “getting out in front of” was a tsunami.  It wasn’t just a single indiscretion, or only a few.  Being aware of the magnitude of the “selfish and irresponsible behavior” in which he engaged, perhaps he understood the futility of trying to stanch his wounded reputation before the entire story emerged.

Even more important, it would have made no sense for Woods to begin answering questions and charting courses of action until he and his family had figured out where they wanted to go, and what they were willing to do in order to achieve it.  Those things can take time, and rushing to appease the impatient media may have proven disastrous, tantamount to throwing a cake into the oven before mixing in all the necessary ingredients.

Woods’ speech, robotic as it may have been, gave us insight into what he wants.  He says he wants to heal the deep wounds he has inflicted on his family and close friends.  He wants to address, through therapy and spirituality, the causes of his destructive behavior.  He wants to show golf fans that he is worthy of their admiration and respect.  He wants to help others who acquiesce to similar destructive impulses.  He wants to become a better man.  And he wants to play golf again.

Let’s concede that he received some high-powered PR counsel, but it’s difficult to doubt his sincerity.  He doesn’t need the money.  He doesn’t “owe” anyone – other than those closest to him – an explanation or apology.  There is no mandate that he face continuing public humiliation for his behavior.  He doesn’t need to step back into the spotlight, and yet, here he is.

In advance of Woods’ appearance, the CNN anchor – with as much drama as he could muster – asked, “Does this appearance rehab his image?”  It’s a shallow, stupid question.  The truth is, you can’t communicate your way out of something you behaved yourself into.  Whether you have truly rehabilitated yourself can only be judged over time. 

Woods acknowledged that.  He took responsibility for his “selfish and irresponsible behavior.”  He apologized without equivocation.  He conveyed contrition.  He said it will be a long road to his recovery.  And when he gets to the golf part of it, he is certain to encounter at least a few nattering knuckleheads, at every venue, on every hole, in a sport that is rife with double entendres. 

To what extent does the public really care, anyway?  Is the press and paparazzi a legitimate conduit for the public’s right to know, or does this saga merely feed the media’s own ravenous appetite for salacious content? Woods asked the media hoard to leave his family out of this.  Good luck with that.

In any case, it would be a mistake to write Woods off as ruined goods, another icon who squandered extensive fame and fortune with, as he put it, “my repeated irresponsible behavior.”  It’s also a stretch to suggest that acting sooner than he did would have mitigated the damage or helped shorten his journey to salvation, if that is indeed where he’s headed.

We seem to take perverse joy in the dismantling or self-destruction of our heroes, but we also tend to believe that everyone deserves a shot at redemption.  If Ted Kennedy, Michael Milken and Kobe Bryant can lift themselves from the deep ditches they dug, so too can the Eliot Spitzers, Martha Stewarts and Tiger Woodses who follow. 

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Rick Kelly (rkelly@TriadStrategies.com) directs the Crisis Communications Practice at Triad Strategies LLC in Harrisburg, Pa.

Comments

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Danny Brown

Hi Roy,

Great post, and especially on a subject that has divided so many - there really doesn't seem to be a middle ground on this one for a lot of people.

One thing I'd disagree with (sorry!) is that he doesn't "owe" anyone other than those closest to him anything. While I agree th heartfelt apology and major trust re-building is going to be with those nearest and dearest, he does owe his sponsors a nit, too.

When you take on multi-million dollar deals, you're essentially taking on that company's mantra and culture as well. Playing away from home isn't the ideal look and feel for many businesses, and in that respect Tiger owes these companies that kind of responsible commitment.

Again, great post and looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

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