Tiger Woods needs new PR strategy

If there's something the last two weeks have shown us, it is that the days of denial (and its more nuanced younger partner, the "non-denial" denial) as a PR tactic may be over and out.
Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1 golfer, has been the subject of intense public scrutiny for more than just his golf game. ((Mark Dadswell/Getty Images))

Tiger, Tiger burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? — William Blake, 1757-1827

If there's something the last two weeks have shown us, it is that the days of denial (and its more nuanced younger partner, the "non-denial" denial) as a PR tactic may be over and out.

Tiger Woods, whose "fearful symmetry" was forged over the last 12 years by a fawning media that built a young guy who happened to be an outstanding golfer into something more closely resembling half-man, half-metaphor, has learned this lesson to his horror.

The same internet that was taken advantage of to build Tiger up, is now ripping him back down again.

That’s hardly a new idea as creating and destroying heroes goes back to before Roman times. ("Hey, did you hear Celadus has been stepping out on his wives and concubines?")

But Celadus, a gladiator, didn’t have to deal with the internet in Pompeii. When a rumour went around, it went around at about the speed one person could walk to find another to tell it to.  

And it still did work much that way until the invention of voice messaging, email, Twitter and an internet to enhance it all changed the game completely.

We don’t know if Tiger's PR folks came up with the idea of trying to fudge his "transgressions" (Tiger's word) on or around Nov. 27 when Woods drove his SUV into a fire hydrant and then a tree, or if he overruled them.

Big mistake

But it has turned out to be an unfortunate error, one that has taken what should have been a large, but easily handled story that would peter out, and instead turned it into a viral media phenomenon.

Google "Tiger Woods Affair" on Monday and you got more than 38 million hits. That's just slightly behind Climategate, and the latter only deals with, you know, the future of the planet.

Tiger Woods holds his daughter, Sam, and stands next to his wife, Elin Nordegren, on the sidelines of a Stanford Cardinal football game on Nov. 21, a week before admitting to "transgressions." ((Ezra Shaw/Getty Images))

All this was because it smelled right off like the Woods camp was hiding something – nothing about the accident seemed to add up so thousands of MSM (main stream media) and VM (viral media – that's you out there) members set forth to see just how the math really worked.

It didn't take long for the story to explode far out of proportion (and remember, at its heart this story is about a family tragedy, and it isn’t actually funny in the slightest).

The conversation on the morning of Nov. 27, a few days after the National Enquirer had printed the first details of an alleged Tiger affair, should have gone something like this:

PR hack: Tiger, did you have any sort of relationship with a woman other than your wife after you were married?

Tiger: Um … well …

PR hack: Then get your butt out in front of your house and tell all those reporters you're sorry you screwed up, you've embarrassed your family and with God's help and the help of your beloved wife (remember to turn to her with a sorrowful look), you can and will change.

Fuel on the fire

This story would have gone away shortly after as other things caught our interest. Instead, another alleged girlfriend of Tiger's decided to put a damning recorded phone message apparently from him out in public, and thus on to the internet.

The jig was up. Suddenly on Tiger's web site came this: "I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behaviour my family deserves."

Notice he didn't admit to anything? The PR folks must have been quite proud of themselves.

But it made everything worse because now everyone was desperate to find out what "transgressions" actually meant. (Google that whole statement above, by the way, and you get more than 30,000 hits, so it did get noticed).

The way we as sports journalists have handled the indiscretions of athletes has changed greatly since the days of such baseball stars as Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle.

Back then, the press simply didn’t write anything about the personal lives of the stars until into the 1960s when a new breed of reporters emerged, led by men such as Dick Schaap and Howard Cosell, who set out to "Tell it like it is."

Add in the scare of Jim Bouton’s tell-all book Ball Four in 1970 and the tomcats were suddenly out of the bag.

So denial often became the PR approach and it worked for years because it took far too much work for any individual to put this little scrap together with this other scrap and that tidbit over there to come up with reasonable proof.

Not any more.

The new era

We can now put my scrap together with your smidgen and that other woman’s little bit  and come up with a pretty solid hypothesis in about, oh, 10 seconds on the internet.

The final nail in the denial coffin has been the invention of Twitter.

How did we know that Tiger Woods wasn’t really in "serious" condition, or "near death" or "may have already died" as some people were suggesting on that Nov. 27 morning in Florida?

Because he was taken to the hospital in the middle of the night and if he had been seriously hurt someone in there would have Twittered it out within minutes. Instead, we heard nothing until the middle of the afternoon.

Therefore, he had to have been fine.

Remember that thanks to some inside source, TMZ reported that Michael Jackson was dead on June 27 probably no more than five minutes after his heart gave up. That should have tipped off Tiger's people right there that getting way out in front of this story by coming clean was the key. 

We have come to a new era now, a viral one. And for PR people, the denial tactic, in hopes everything will just go away, is likely to be replaced by a new approach: the instant mea culpa.

A smart PR person might actually write those in advance and keep them in a file cabinet so they can be pulled out at a moment's notice. 

Malcolm Kelly is coordinator of the graduate sports journalism program at Centennial College.