Monday, December 14, 2009, 10:05 AM

Tiger's crisis is a teachable moment

This column was first published Friday in The Maryland Daily Record.

The line of consultants giving Tiger Woods public relations advice these days is a long one. Just Google "Tiger Woods" and "crisis communications" and get comfortable. You could be reading all day.
Rather than add to the chorus of armchair quarterbacks, I want to touch on a few lessons that the business community can learn from Woods' saga about communicating in a crisis.If you think these rules apply only to celebrity athletes, think again. Businesses broadly, and executives specifically, are not immune to the public's insatiable curiosity in a crisis. If your company has yet to experience a serious public relations storm, then save this advice for a rainy day.
Information vacuums fill quickly. Information vacuums are the breeding ground of speculation in a crisis. If you don't fill them with facts, somebody else will fill them with rumors. Assuming that journalists and talk show hosts won't speculate -- oftentimes wildly -- without possessing the facts is also foolish. Ratings and 24-hour news cycles mean that speed often trumps accuracy in reporting big news.
Privacy is a right, except when it's not. There is often a disconnect between a company's view of what should remain private in a crisis and what the press believes should remain private. That's the price companies -- and professional golfers -- pay for playing in and profiting from the public arena. The question to ask in a crisis is not simply what legal rights to privacy you have, but rather how likely it is the press will obtain sensitive information through an unauthorized leak, an old IRS form, or a Public Information Act request. If the likelihood is high, consider disclosing it quickly on your own terms. It could mean the difference between two days of bad press and two weeks of bad press.
Accountability matters. Posting vague statements on a Web site that might as well have been written by a publicist rarely satisfy the press in a crisis. They lack sincerity and accountability. Ask Serena Williams. The tennis star apologized not once, not twice, but three times after verbally threatening a line judge at the U.S. Open in August. She posted the first two apologies on her Web site. They didn't work. Only when she personally stepped before a microphone and apologized for her conduct did media scrutiny subside. You can bet Tiger will have to do the same before his next golf tournament.
Legal advice and PR advice often collide. A common theme in the Tiger Woods analysis is that Tiger got terrible PR advice. That's not necessarily true. Tiger may have gotten sound advice -- go public early and on your own terms -- but opted instead to remain silent to reduce liability in the event of criminal charges, divorce filings, or breach of the "moral clause" in his contracts with corporate sponsors. This would not be the first time legal and public relations advisers were at odds. Executives have to judge whether that legal course is worth the damage their company's brand will suffer in the court of public opinion.
Don't preach to the extremes. Being successful inevitably means having critics. Yes, Tiger earned this round of scrutiny through his personal conduct, but successful companies and people -- from Goldman Sachs to Steve Jobs -- inevitably give rise to communities of critics and gadflies even before a crisis hits. Your goal in a crisis shouldn't be to convert those who are unwilling to listen, but rather to speak with candor and clarity to the open-minded.
Delay benefits the critics. Ironically, the people and organizations Tiger most dislikes -- tabloids, talk show hosts, and gossip hounds -- were the primary beneficiaries of his decision to remain silent. The longer he thumbed his nose at the press and the public, the more tabloid Web sites like TMZ and the Enquirer hauled in new readers online. The more he dismissed the public's curiosity, the higher the ratings were for cable news and talk radio. (OK, I couldn't resist a little bit of armchair quarterbacking in this column.)
If your company has been through a public relations crisis, chances are good these rules applied. They clearly transcend business, politics, sports and entertainment. What is less clear is whether the broader business community (hint: that means you) will view Tiger's situation as a teachable moment and plan accordingly for the next crisis.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly, and his e-mail address is henry.fawell@wcsr.com

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