Getting ahead of the story. Damage control. Positive spin.
If you’re even remotely familiar with the world of public relations, these expressions should be familiar to you.
Basically, if you’re in charge of the public image of a public figure – whether it be an athlete or a politician, a musician or an actor – you want to squash (as quickly and quietly as possible) any bad press that comes their way. Because no matter what people want to believe, there is such a thing as bad press. Just ask Richard Nixon. Or Mel Gibson. Or Lance Armstrong. I could go on.
Publicists also want to manage their client’s professional obligations in a way that will make their star shine the brightest, from interviews granted to sponsorships ironed out to “Does this tie go with this shirt?”
From Bill Clinton to Charlie Sheen, there have been loads of celebrity scandals over the years. I tune most of them out. For some (see Lindsay Lohan, Kristen Stewart) it’s simply because I don’t care. For others (see Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson), things got so crazy and weird that I couldn’t help but care at least a bit. I suppose it’s interesting to watch someone throw their career down the garburator in front of your very eyes.
So scandals happen. We all know this. But another responsibility of the PR team (apart from avoiding one in the first place, of course) is to minimize the damage done after the news has broke. In other words: Damage control.
So I’m a golf fan. Yes, you read that right. I follow professional golf. Closely, in fact. Another thing you may not know is that golf also has its share of scandals, although you have to be a nerd like me to actually follow and/or care about them. The long putter controversy aside, two recent cases, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, demonstrated almost too perfectly the bad way to handle a scandal (Tiger) and the good way (Rory).
I’ve touched on this issue in the past but suffice it to say that when it comes to celebrity scandals, you probably couldn’t find a bigger one than Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, who just happened to be the best golfer in the world by a country mile at the time. For those who had been living under a rock, Tiger got a teensy amount of press for having sex with one to 100 women (depending on who you believed), none of whom were his pretty, Swedish nanny of a wife.
In Tiger’s case, you probably couldn’t find a worse response to bad press. Tiger’s team really failed him on this one, no doubt about it. For a scandal that graced the cover of the New York Post for 20 straight days, for a bombshell of a story about the most recognizable athlete of the past 10-plus years, you’d think they could have responded better. But they didn’t.
They stayed silent for two months. There were no official statements, no interviews with reporters, nothing. Not exactly getting ahead of the story, are we, Team Tiger? The thing with getting ahead of the story is that it allows you to tell your version of events, to mitigate the damage done. If Team Tiger had suggested that maybe some of these women coming out of the woodwork weren’t telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, maybe the public wouldn’t have taken them at their word. But instead, they sat idly by while the New York Post used up barrel after barrel of ink to splash Tiger all over 20 consecutive front pages.
And to make things worse, when Tiger finally addressed the issue, he read a prepared statement to a room full of hand-picked reporters. That’s it. Tiger would not take questions. No questions, ladies and gentlemen!
Speculation is like a raging bonfire. You want to put it out as quickly as possible. You don’t want to allow it to get fueled or you might get burned. And, ladies and gentlemen, Tiger Woods got burned big time.
First of all, Rory’s controversy and Tiger’s scandal are not even in the same stratosphere. Put it this way: I was surprised when some coworkers brought up their disappointment in Rory without me doing it first. I didn’t have a full-time job when Tiger hit that fire hydrant and all hell broke loose but I’d bet a Sunday pass to the Masters that the water cooler chatter was a bit more pronounced for him.
To recap: Rory was wrapping up his second round at the Honda Classic a couple of weeks ago. After a pedestrian first round, he was seven-over-par after eight holes after knocking two balls into the drink. For the record, I’m pretty bad at golf and I could be seven-over after eight! The kid (he’s 23 so I can call him that) was playing horribly! Anyway, he hits his second shot on 18 (his ninth hole of the day) in the water, shakes his playing partners’ hands, and walks straight to the parking lot. He quit! If there’s anything more off-putting for fans, it’s seeing a multi-millionaire athlete quit (see Vince Carter).
The jabs from the fans and the media came swiftly. Rory quit! Rory has no respect for the game! He’s a brat! He’s selfish! He’s young and immature! He owed it to the tournament and the fans to at least finish out his round! Tiger never would have done something like this!
The negative press on Rory was significant although nothing approaching Tiger sex scandal level (not sure Rory made the cover of the New York Post). Initially, there was some confusion because Rory, upon leaving the course, had told reporters that he wasn’t right mentally. Moments later, a statement read that he had been suffering from wisdom tooth pain. Which one was it, Rory? The speculation quietly built. But unlike Tiger, all of it was quickly defused the week after when Rory did something that sounds so crazy that it just might work: He simply told the truth.
Here’s what he said, courtesy of CBS:
Everyone makes mistakes, and you know I’m learning from them. I guess for me, some people have the pleasure of making mistakes in private, most of my mistakes are in the public eye. It is what it is and I regret what I did but it’s over now and it won’t happen again.
Hmm. Honest. Humble. Forthcoming. Pretty good strategy, I’d say. He reiterated to the press that he’s 23 and he makes mistakes. I mean, who couldn’t relate to that? Who hasn’t made a boatload of mistakes in their early 20s? If you haven’t, I don’t want to be your friend.
Basically, he came off as an honest kid who made an honest mistake. With one press conference, the controversy was essentially gone. Ten years from now, we probably won’t be talking about how Rory walked off the course when he was 23. Hopefully, we’ll be talking about all the majors he’s been winning.
So there you go. Tiger might have more victories and majors than Rory but when it comes to the rule book on responding to a scandal, Tiger might owe Rory a few strokes.
And they’re BFFs so, like, whatever.