Friday, February 19, 2010

There's no crying in golf!

It's 9:31 am, Friday morning, February 19, 2010.  Tiger Woods finished his nationally televised apology about ten minutes ago and now the talking heads and pundits are clamoring all over themselves to judge his words, actions and decisions in the wake of, what appears to be, the biggest sports story of the day.  Click the link above for a full transcript of Tiger's apology, courtesy of KCAL news in Los Angeles.

I'm not here to judge Tiger.  Nor am I here to judge his apology.  To paraphrase a great writer,  I come not to bury Tiger, nor to praise him.

Instead, I come to analyze.  Small business owners and non-profits should have watched the Tiger press conference.  If you didn't see it, you missed public relations magic in the happening, along with a ton of other behind-the-scenes activities that made today's apology even more fascinating than it already was.

Before I go further, I have to offer up a disclaimer or two.  First, I am a Tiger fan.  A big Tiger fan.  He is a compelling athletic figure, and the best golfer in the world we have seen in over a generation.  I also never felt he owed anyone besides his family an apology, public or otherwise.  He didn't break any laws, he didn't cheat the game, or its fans, to quote several pundits online.

But as pressure mounted from fans, the media and, particularly, his sponsors, he and his handlers from the IMG agency apparently felt the time had come to publicly grovel and ask forgiveness.  And again, I'm not here to judge the apology, just to analyze it from a public relations perspective, and hopefully take lessons from this circus that you can use should you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to make a public apology.

And don't think this could never happen to you.  Small businesses and non-profits are in the arena of public trust.  If you lose the trust of the public, for any reason, your organization will fail.  It's that simple (unless you're a bank, then the government will prop you up, but that's another issue).

Tiger is a polarizing figure.  Many love him, or at least loved him, before this scandal broke.  Many hate him, for his arrogance, for his immaturity, for his game.  Unlike the McGuire apology, who's apology was also handled by IMG handlers, Tiger will have a chance to put this all behind him by being a stellar performer again on the links.

But what about the apology itself?  Minutes after the apology, online writers and journalists were hammering Tiger for being too stiff, for being too unemotional, for being too rehearsed.  Tiger didn't break down, he didn't cry, which has become so expected at many athletes' apologies.  For just over ten minutes, Tiger stood before the cameras and a select group of reporters, and read from a prepared statement.

That's not to say he didn't show ANY emotion at all.  He seemed genuinely angered when he addressed the media's treatment of his wife and child, and when addressing what he calls false allegations his wife ever hit him or that he ever took performance enhancing drugs.

This anger dump, seemed to rub many in the media the wrong way, noting that it wasn't the right time to go after the scribes.  I ask, though, if not then, when?  Sometimes you have to attack a situation, even in a public relations and crisis communications setting.  Had he gone overboard and made personal attacks or truly lost his cool, then I might agree.  Listen, as a former journalist, I nearly always come down on the side of the media.  In this case, however, Tiger had to address these issues and allegations, and showing a little anger is only human, and it's something I think many in the general public can, and will, relate to.

The body of his speech was pure crisis communications 101.  

Admit - He addressed the problem.  He admitted he had a problem.  He pointed to himself, his immaturity, his flaws, his drifting away from his Buddhist teachings, his own poor decisions.  He didn't throw his wife under the bus.  In fact he defended her in glowing terms.  He made it clear that the only issue involved his infidelity, that he felt he was above the rules of marriage and that he was wrong...period.  He did a good job of bringing himself down to earth and appeared humbled, something which, I'm sure, greatly pleased many.

Apologize - He apologized.  He said "I'm sorry," several times, and directed his apology specifically to several groups, from his fans, to his family, to his sponsors, and to families and children who viewed him as a role model.

Correct - He followed that up by saying he has already undergone treatment, sex therapy treatment, and would undergo more treatment to ensure this never happened again.  He spoke of his Buddhist teachings and admitted he had drifted away from those teachings.  He added that a big part of his recovery will involve that spiritual element.

In words and structure alone, Tiger hit a home run in terms of classic crisis communications.  He requested privacy for his family, and even addressed the lack of public appearances or answers by saying the issues facing him and his family were private.  Again, this is something I think most in the general public will understand.  Another check in the positive box for Tiger.

Emotion Motion:

But, what about the lack of emotion?  Is it necessary in 2010 to be overly emotional when making a public apology?  Everyone's doing it.  Politicians, athletes, high school students, convicted criminals, Bank CEO's, everyone.  So maybe we were just shocked that Tiger didn't break down, or trickle a tear down his cheek.

Personally, I didn't mind that he didn't cry, or almost cry, or choke up even a little bit.  As I said earlier, Tiger appeared humble.  He seemed human.  People watching his apology could relate, even if just for a moment, to Tiger in a way they never could before.  We didn't need tears to make him seem cuddly or a more tragic figure.  And here's a thought; in today's cynical world, sometimes the tears come across as fake or as a person simply wanting pity, not real forgiveness.

As a small business owner or non-profit director, keep this in mind.  People, by and large, WANT to believe, they want to forgive.  The really only unforgiveable thing is lying.  Tiger hadn't lied up to this point, and so his apology didnt' have address a false statement or anything else other than this personal indescretions.  If you ever find yourself in a crisis, the one thing you have to do, the most important thing you'll ever do, is don't lie.  If your charity misplaced a million dollars, if your business caused an e-coli outbreak, people will forgive you if you own up to it immediately.  Try to lie your way out of it, or cover it up, the public will never forget or forgive.

Also, don't point fingers.  Don't try to blame someone else for the problem.  Don't try to say, "the devil made me do it."  Accept the blame, take your punishment, don't try to bring others down with you.

Media Backlash:

One of the fascinating aspects of today's apology involves the media reaction to Tiger's apology.  Tiger and the media have had a love-hate relationship for his entire career.  Tiger has maintained a private existence, something which often upsets the golf writers.  He has had an antagonistic relationship for years with reporters, answering questions in short, often edgy tones.  Let's be clear, the media is not Tiger's friend here.

And the media won't be your friend if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.  But Tiger seemed to aggravate the already shaky relationship by limiting the number of journalists allowed into the room, and then by refusing to answer questions.  These actions led to the Golf Writers Association of America to boycott the press conference.  A stupid move in my opinion and one that reeked of a spoiled child taking its toys and going home.  In fact, if anyone was crying today, it was the media, who has reacted in a way so childish, it makes me embarrassed for them.

I think the refusal to answer questions particularly riled the media, and I think that's why, in this case, while I believe the general public will warmly receive Tiger's apology, the media will be more skeptical and judge him more harshly.

Know this; the media feels it's an important aspect to all big stories.  They need to be able to ask questions.  Without questions, a red flag raises in the heads of journalists and we wonder what the person apologizing is trying to hide.  In Tiger's case, he's a big enough celebrity to get away with this kind of move.  You, however cannot.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you're making a public apology, you absolutely have to answer questions from the media.  If you don't, it looks bad.  It looks like you're afraid of something.  Worse, it looks like you're trying to hide something.

Tiger isn't stupid.  He knows there will still be people out there who will never forgive him for his actions and infidelities.  But listening to his apology, it didn't sound like he was begging for the world to love him, it sounded like he was asking forgiveness from those that mean the most to him, his family, his fans and his sponsors.  And you have to understand that if you find yourself in a crisis situation, you will never please all the people all the time.  There will be those out there who will never forgive.  Don't try to appease the entire world, just those that matter most to you, your customers, shareholders, stakeholders, family, friends, etc.

Most importantly, you will have to work much more closely with the media than Tiger did today.  You will need their help to cast you in a positive light.  This means answering questions, and, more importantly, if the situation warrants it, allowing one-on-one interviews with reporters.  Because you don't carry the same cache that Tiger carries, your road back will be a longer one, but one that can be less bumpy if you grant some personal interviews to repeat your apology and allow yourself to be seen as a human being, a flawed human being, that is trying to make things right.

If it makes you feel any better, even Tiger will likely have to grant a personal interview at some point to ressurect his reputation as a role model, at least among one demographic.  Women aged 28 to 50 were among the most vocal and most angered by Tiger's actions.  Even after today's apology, he likely still has some major salvage work to do with that demo.  And, because he's Tiger, he'll target the one person who has the most pull with that group of Americans; Oprah.  Don't be surprised if he pops up on her show in the next month or so, probably right before his return to competition.

Sadly, you probably won't get the opportunity to go on Oprah to restore your credibility, but you don't have to.  Be sincere in your apology, don't point fingers, admit what you did, set a clear course as to how you're going to fix the problem, and play nice with the media, and you'll find forgiveness will be forthcoming, from most people anyway.

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