November 30, 2009
Kevin Sullivan is the founder of Kevin Sullivan Communications, LLC. He was White House communications director under President George W. Bush, and before that was a communications executive with NBC Universal, NBC Sports and the Dallas Mavericks.
Tell it first, tell it yourself and tell it all. That is the tried and true formula for handling a messy public relations crisis in the smoothest possible way.
When Tiger Woods let 13 hours lapse after Friday's early-morning accident without issuing an explanation, he ceded control of his story not only to legitimate news outlets, but also to celebrity gossip mongers on the hunt for a tale –- made up or otherwise -– of adultery and mayhem. The story of Tiger's first major off-the-course bogey was in their sights and the race was on to fill in the juicy details.
Woods hired attorney Mark NeJame, which shouldn't raise eyebrows -– after all, the police are investigating Woods' crash -– but repeatedly declining to be interviewed by the police makes it look like he has something to hide.
When Woods finally responded with a Sunday afternoon statement, he called the rumors false, malicious and irresponsible. Good for Tiger, who has a track record of successfully taking on the tabloids. But while he took responsibility for the crash, he provided scant information. ”I want to keep it (private),” Woods said of the details surrounding the middle-of-the-night incident. Good luck with that.
Woods' strategy leaves many questions unanswered, which has ignited a media frenzy to fill in the blanks and take down the world's most successful and well-known athlete.
Tiger's problem is that we've seen plenty of public figures in hot water make stern denials only to later be backpedaled into confessions after third parties talk or more information is unearthed. Remember the cases of Marion Jones, Michael Vick and Pete Rose, to name a few -– along with a parade of politicians, most recently former Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards –- who misled and later came clean.
I want to believe Woods that all those salacious rumors are false. I certainly don't blame him for wanting to keep private whatever happened that night between him and his wife, Elin. But it's unrealistic. The state police want answers about the incident. The media won't let it go. And while Rachel Uchitel has denied the National Enquirer report that she had an affair with Woods, watching the video of her at LAX Sunday standing silently before the cameras alongside celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, it's hard to imagine that we're not going to hear from her soon.
So here are three suggestions for Woods:
1. Don't delay. Hold your scheduled press conference Tuesday to kick off the Chevron World Challenge, which, since it benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation among other charities, makes it the perfect backdrop. Without going into every private detail, provide a sense of what led to the collision. Give an explanation, take a couple questions, and then move on to previewing the tournament and how it will benefit the work of your foundation.
2. If you have something to own up to, do it completely and you will be forgiven. Just ask Kobe Bryant.
3. If not, disarm the skeptics with your sense of humor. Gary Peterson of the Contra Costa Times had a suggestion: Say you were excited about a Black Friday sale and got carried away. Then give a sincere explanation.
Anything that actually addresses the incident will bring Woods one step closer to putting it behind him. Otherwise, he better get used to seeing the TMZ.com van hanging around his subdivision.
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