As a communications attorney and consultant, I am often asked about the remarkable and spectacular fall of Tiger Woods. There are not many better examples in the communications world about how something so great can fail so quickly – and mostly because of his poor preparation for crisis.
Just before his Cadillac hit the fire hydrant, Tiger was arguably the most popular and marketable athlete of all time. Even to those predisposed to resenting him, his greatness was undeniable and his public persona was one of a hyper-focused athlete whose talent had launched several brands.
The collision with the fire hydrant and resulting media onslaught sprung a leak in his public image that yet to be repaired.
My initial reaction from the media firestorm was one of hope for Tiger – hope that he could finally address the demons within himself that destroyed his outwardly perfect family; hope that he could continue to give a reason to bring new eyes to a great sport every week; and hope that this incident would be a mere speed bump in his career. Most of all, I hoped that that this would give Tiger (and his team) some perspective and finally force him to do something that he had never done – show us that he is human.
In his most human of moments, Tiger had an opportunity to open his entire being to the world. Warts and all. Not make us understand why he had these flaws, but make us feel something for him. Prior to the fire hydrant, people felt admiration, awe, jealousy, hate or whatever else for Tiger the golfer. He has been carefully presented as such since hitting balls with Bob Hope. His handcrafted public image allowed no room for a human being, only a dominating golfer and a global brand. In the early stages of his professional career, GQ presented a human Tiger and got all future access denied as a parting gift. Since, we have only seen Tiger as he (and his team) wanted us to see Tiger.
At the most basic, this is precisely what communications professionals tell their clients what they will provide – the good. As Accenture used to say, “Be a Tiger.”
However, Tiger’s fall showed that no matter the narrative, bad is going to appear. It may not be a spectacular fall complete with drug allegations, domestic abuse, the National Enquirer, and a broken back window, but it will seem equally as disastrous from your eyes.
Many companies focus on the after. Certainly, the “after” is important to minimize the damage. But, companies should routinely look at their brand in the marketplace and design their crisis preparedness to strengthen that brand. That is not to say that Tiger’s problems would have been avoided. Tiger built an image that presupposed that he would never fail. If he had properly built some room in his image to fail, his comeback would find more people cheering for redemption, rather than a collection of rubberneckers waiting for the next fire hydrant.