Of tigers and dogs and the howling jackals of the press: what the Woods trainwreck can teach us about public relations

In case you missed it, Eldrick Tont Woods, the world’s greatest golfer, has been up against some pressing PR issues of late. Pretty much nobody is arguing that he’s handled it well. Begin with the official record. While it’s not yet 100% clear what touched off the fateful events of November 27, 2009, everybody is denying that Elin was trying to neuter him with a long iron.

But think about the story we’re being sold: The National Enquirer pubs a story saying Tiger is stepping out on his wife. A couple nights later, at two or three in the morning, Tiger decides to leave the house for no apparent reason. While trying to back out of the driveway – stone sober, the reports insist – he manages to wrap the Escalade around a tree. With me so far? Good. Then his wife comes out and tries to “rescue” him by bashing out the windows with a club.

If none of this smells a tad overripe to you, call me. I’m working a sweet real estate deal – waterfront property in south-central Florida, as it turns out – and am looking for partners.

Anyhow, we’re not here to snark over the fact that Woods lives in a town with the most gullible CSI unit in America. We’re here to discuss what this case tells us about the brave new world of public relations and crisis communications in the land of the ubiquitous, 24/7/4ever tabloid news cycle.

The Ugly Choices

Say you’re a PR counselor. And you represent a client who encounters a personal crisis of the general shape and/or size of Tigergate. What do you do?

You say this:

Client, you have a choice, and I can’t make it for you. On the one hand, you have a right to privacy, despite what the howling jackals of the free press would like us to believe. You’re entitled to say nothing and to deal with your personal life behind closed doors. They may stalk you for the rest of your days, but you may, if you choose, ignore them. You don’t even have to acknowledge their existence, and if they get out of line you can get restraining orders and hire security to keep them out of your immediate personal space.

Or you can face the music.

Now, if you choose option B, you’ll need to be fully forthcoming. If they smell a lie, a dodge, a rhetorical two-step, any hint at all that the truth they’re getting is even slightly varnished, well, it’ll be worse than if you’d stonewalled them. And a calculated, cynical faux press conference event like the one staged by that Tiger look-alike robot a couple of weeks back? Yeah, I’d avoid that like I would pigeon tartare.

So option B = 100% transparency. Think about all the things that means. Like, what’s your self-respect worth? How you feel about being on your knees before the drooling, unwashed masses?

If you opt for route A, though, understand something – and this is critical. Your brand is going to take an epic nard-stomping. It may never recover. Even if it does, it may take a very long time. If your livelihood depends on your public reputation, the question becomes how much money do you need to live on? How much are you willing to sacrifice? And I mean this literally, Client. This is a math question – how many dollars do you have, how many do you need, and how many are you willing to forego?

Hell Hath No Fury

Sadly, options A and B are more or less mutually exclusive. That sucks, I know. It’s not fair that a person should have to make this kind of choice. But that’s the world we live in.

Once upon a time a newspaper arrived in the morning and the news came on TV in the evening. Like a dog that knows dinner time is 6pm, the public was acclimated to this information rationing routine. In that world a pro like me could control the flow of data. Gatekeep like a sumbitch, you betcha. Top-down, one-to-many them until the cows come home. Rover is going to eat at six, and he’s going to eat what I put in front of him, by god.

Those days are gone, though. With the ubiquitous tabloid infotainment cycle in which we now find ourselves morally adrift, you’re no longer facing the well-heeled family dog from your basic ’50s sitcom. These days Rover rolls with a posse and an attitude. Kibble at six? Fuck you, master. I’ll eat when I want, and if you don’t like it I’ll head over to the Johnson place. Dogs are a too-rare commodity these days, and unless you’d like me to become the neighbor’s faithful hound, there better be something tasty in that dish around the clock.

Forgive me if I’m torturing the metaphor, but hopefully the point is clear. In a world with 24-hour “news,” always-on Internet and now an exploding mobile landscape, where that ubiquity is never further away than your pocket, the rules have changed. And not in your favor.

Your Life May Belong to You, But Your Brand Belongs to the Public

See, today’s public has gotten entitled. They’ve gotten accustomed to the immediacy, the comprehensiveness of the on-demand infocycle. Key word: demand. Something happens, they find out within seconds. And if it’s even remotely interesting, there are dozens (hundreds, even thousands) of outlets and individuals on the trail, relentlessly scouring the story for every minute scrap of detail, no matter how banal or trivial.

It’s their right to know … well, whatever the hell they want to know. Information wants to be free. Information is power. They’ve paid for their phones and their cable and they endure the ads on their favorite Web sites because they want content. All of it. Now, bitches. Understand that, at least subconsciously, they feel like they have paid for the right to know whatever they want about you. Your private life is their property. You’re public domain now. That may seem perverse, but there it is.

If you get righteously indignant and insist on option A (that’s the “respect my privacy route”), Client, one of two things is going to happen. On the one hand, people may respect your courage and principles and give you the space you need to get your life back tog…[snzrrrk…hrrf…BWAHAHAHAHA….] Hoo. Thanks, thanks. I’ll be here all week. Remember to tip your waitress.

Aherm. So no, I was just kidding. That’s not one of the things that might happen. I just wanted to see that cute little glimmer of hope leap into your puppy dog eyes again. I know, I’m a hateful, soulless bastard. You knew that when you hired me, though.

Seriously, though. One thing that might happen is rampant outrage. How dare you clam up on us? Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned. They’ll carry on like you betrayed them personally, even though they may never have been in the same time zone with you.

This will be very bad. But not as bad as the other thing that can happen, which is that they move onto some other shiny thing and forget about you completely. That yawning sound you’re hearing is the sound of your personal brand sloughing onto the heap of permanent irrelevance. It’s a very different sound than the clink of gold coins being dropped into your pockets, isn’t it?

This Is Your Life

I’m sorry, Client, I’d say. This is all I have. I can explain the landscape, detail your options, and execute like a hall of famer along the course you choose, but I can’t pick that path for you. This is the rest of your life we’re talking about. You have to decide which cup of poison to drink.

I mean, sure, if you were Tiger and I had a hot tub time machine I’d be happy to jacuzzi back a few years and try to explain to you the deleterious impact that unsanctioned cocktail waitresses can exert on your cash flow position, but let’s be honest. You’d listen to me about like Senator Fatback listens to a lobbyist who shows up empty-handed, wouldn’t you?

And in truth, we can carp about the system all we want, but if it weren’t for this over-the-top, completely ludicrous system your brand probably wouldn’t be a percent of what it is today, anyway, right? Live by the sword, die by the sword.

I know none of this is what you want to hear, Client, but you called me to manage the crisis. Which means I arrived shortly after we lost control of important parts of the game. So now we play the hand we’re dealt.

There is an edict that was always true about crisis management, but it’s about a million times more important today than it once was: the best way to deal with crisis is to avoid it. The lesson is a simple one. People will find out. So if you don’t want to see it on TMZ and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, don’t fucking do it.

As I say, simple.

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