Tarnishing the Brand: Tiger Woods as a Business

By George Merlis Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Don’t think of Tiger Woods as an athlete. Think of him as a business, a brand. Now let’s ask if Tiger Woods, Inc. was well served by its founder/chairman/CEO in the ongoing solo car accident scandal.

From the public relations point of view, I think not.

On November 30, Nancy Armour, a reporter for the Associated Press, called to ask me how I thought Woods was handling the incident. It was early on in the chronology of the story; the incident was just a bizarre early-morning single-car accident that may or may not have been caused by an argument over what might or might not have been an extra-marital liaison. At this point, only one rather disreputable tabloid had made a single salacious allegation against Woods. Woods had crashed his car, been to the hospital and returned home. He declined to talk with the police or the media, and he issued the first of his series of web site comments (this was the one where there was neither domestic abuse nor extra-marital dalliances).

I told Ms. Armour I thought Woods was handling his PR badly. My comments were shaped by my current job as a media trainer and crisis communications consultant, and by my previous experience as executive producer of "Good Morning America" and "Entertainment Tonight." Woods, I told the AP, would be wise to get out in front of the story, even if he gave only one interview to one reporter. Clamming up leads to rumor and speculation, and once they begin, it’s nearly impossible to close those floodgates.

Ms. Armour’s story contrasted Woods’ approach with the way David Letterman handled his scandal. Confronted with an equally salacious scandal wrapped in an extortion attempt, Letterman went on the air and told his audience the story. “By revealing that himself, Letterman followed the No. 1 rule in crisis communications: Take control of the story,” Ms. Armour wrote.

My point here is not to rehash the growing scandal but to look at it as a teachable moment for any business. Evasion and/or cover-up are almost always worse than the initial problem, and they never work. The more one evades, the deeper the media digs.

Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS sports, was quoted in another AP story as saying, “At some point, he’ll play golf and he’ll move on. And at some point this will become more embarrassing to the media than to Tiger.”

Now it is true that Tiger Woods owes you and me and the rest of the public absolutely nothing more than the best golf game he can deliver, but Woods owes much more to his sponsors, whose largesse has supplied the bulk of his estimated billion dollar fortune. He owes them what they paid for, which is unsurpassed talent wrapped in a clean, wholesome image. At the moment, the talent remains, but the image is tarnished. Woods owes his sponsors the behavior that is supposed to accompany the image they are paying for. If these sponsors wanted a “bad boy,” the sports, music and film industries offer no end of rogues they could hire.

That said, as of this writing, three of Woods’ sponsors--Nike, Gatorade and Gillette--say they will stand by him. Another sponsor, AT&T, had yet to be heard from; but it remains to be seen just what “standing by” means in this instance. A company can continue to pay Woods and use him far more restrictively than in the past. It can trot him out for corporate events and special appearances and simply not run his TV commercials or magazine ads. Certainly, Nike, which sells a lot of shoes and athletic gear to women, has got to be seriously thinking about how it can use Woods in a way that won’t alienate potential female customers.

We will never know about the deals that don’t come his way because a corporation that might have ponied up another fortune for a Tiger Woods endorsement decides not to approach him in the aftermath of the scandal.

Bottom line: you can’t protect your brand behind a wall of silence.

***Update: As the scandal has developed, Woods' sponsors have moderated their "stand by our man" posture.  

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