Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.
As of this writing, the celebrity gossip scandal involving golfer Tiger Woods is still unfolding, but enough is known to serve as a teachable moment in PR crisis management both for individuals and businesses.
Woods has parceled out information about the circumstances of his car crash in morsels just small enough to create an appetite for more. He has tried to balance the need to answer the media’s questions — not to mention those of the police — with his desire to protect his privacy.
Businesses sometimes find themselves in a similar dilemma when news comes out that makes them look bad and they try to respond to it while at the same time protecting their privacy. The best plan is to get out as much information as one can as soon as possible in order to prevent speculation from taking the place of known facts in the story.
The bare-bones facts in the Woods case are these, according to news reports. Woods left his Florida home at 2:25 a.m. Nov. 27 in his 2009 Cadillac Escalade and promptly ran off the road, knocked over a fire hydrant and hit a tree. Woods’s wife, Elin Nordegren, appeared on the scene soon after and reportedly used a golf club to break the rear windows on the car to free him.
Woods was taken to the hospital, treated for facial cuts and bruises and released.
After holding off Florida Highway Patrol investigators’ requests to interview the couple for three days, Woods’s silence created a vacuum filled by media speculation and gossip, including mention of a previous report in the National Enquirer that Woods may have been involved with another woman. The snickerers online found an alternative reason why his wife was wailing on the Escalade with a golf club.
Sunday, Woods issued a statement that prompted more questions than it answered. It read, in part: “This situation is my fault. I’m human and I’m not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Those with cynical motives can take off and run with “I’m human and I’m not perfect,” in any number of directions, and they probably have.
In his statement, Woods asked the public to respect his own and his family’s privacy. While even as a celebrity he is entitled to a certain amount of that, playing the privacy card has its downside. Deliver a carefully worded statement but offer no opportunity for questions and you only invite more criticism.
Monday, Woods spurred the next news cycle by revealing he wouldn’t be playing at a charity golf tournament in California this week that is to benefit his Tiger Woods Foundation.
An Associated Press story, published Saturday, laid out the public relations crisis management dilemma he faces:
“Assuming Woods has crisis management advisers, he had better get them on the phone. Assuming they answer, he had better listen to their advice. Say something, and say it soon,” wrote the AP’s Tim Dahlberg. “’I was always a believer that you should come out and say what happened, apologize if need be and take it from there,’ said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency.”
Say something and say it soon could be good advice for a business faced with a crisis to manage, too, be it a lawsuit, a high level executive departure or a product recall. Public relations experts advise convening a crisis management team to draft a response plan and carry it out.
In the article, “A startup roadmap for crisis communications,” Wendy Lane, founder of the PR and marketing firm Lane PR, lays out a well thought out crisis response plan.
In brief, Lane advises a company set up a response team ahead of time that includes one or two top executives and representatives of the public relations department. Any public statement, or statement to employees, should be drafted by group consensus within the crisis team. While company officials should reach out to key constituencies affected by the news – such as board members, key clients or vendors – information should not be distributed piecemeal. If someone hears a tidbit of news from a colleague rather than a supervisor, that prompts rumors.
Communicating to those outside the company, including the news media, should also be similarly well-coordinated. In October, I covered a story in which T-Mobile, a wireless carrier, had to notify users of its Danger Sidekick smartphone that, due to a server failure, backup information on their phones, like contacts, calendar entries and e-mail addresses, had been erased.
T-Mobile and Sidekick (a company owned by Microsoft) quickly acknowledged the problem, apologized profusely, temporarily pulled the Sidekick off the market, disclosed as much as they knew and gave disgruntled customers gift cards as compensation for their loss. Within a few weeks, lost data had been restored for most subscribers. The company made the best of a bad situation with a coordinated plan.
It remains to be seen how the Tiger Woods situation will play out. While crisis management professionals advise a more proactive stance than Woods seems to have taken, he still retains strong “brand equity.” He’s a successful golfer, both on the course and at the bank and is a positive role model for all kinds of people. He may have some reputational capital in reserve to survive whatever additional bad publicity lies ahead.