Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Social Media Has Forever Tarnished Tiger Woods' Image

Tiger Woods is the most popular and recognizable professional athlete on the planet and the highest paid athlete and pitchman. However, his purported "transgressions" during the past several years that have recently come to light and his response or initial lack thereof to the rumors concerning his extracurricular activities may have permanently tarnished his marketability.

Tiger's image has been very tightly controlled for many years and he has allowed his great skills on the golf greens to do most of his talking. Tiger's car accident over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend combined with published reports that he has been unfaithful to his wife have forever changed his image. From a legal perspective, Tiger's refusal to speak with police or provide a statement regarding the accident was his best move. However, from a public relations perspective Tiger's initial silence concerning the car accident and his alleged "transgressions" have created a feeding frenzy throughout the social media world.

Everybody makes mistakes. Our country is very forgiving and in the past when our heroes have fallen down and they have worked to repair the damage, the public has accepted them with open arms. A prime example of this is how former President Bill Clinton has bounced back since the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Even though President Clinton had to deal with the 24 hour news cycle, cable news, and the Internet (albeit a much less robust one than we have today), he did not have to deal with the power of social media.

Social media has changed the game. Due to a multitude of news websites, blogs, podcasts, etc... there is no escaping a story. Unfortunately, Tiger's handlers still do not understand the power of social media and how to respond to legal issues that they encounter in the Social Media Age. This is evidenced by Tiger's 11/29/2009 statement concerning his car accident and his 12/02/2009 comments regarding his personal indiscretions. Neither statement provides a clear explanation of what has truly happened, which the public and many of Tiger's fans and supporters want.

From a legal perspective, the less said about a legal matter the better. However, from a public relations standpoint, it is usually advisable to defuse a story by getting out in front of it by either acknowledging it or providing evidence to debunk it. An excellent example of successful public relations is how Meredith Baxter, aka Elyse Keaton of Family Ties fame handled the story concerning her sexuality. Ms. Baxter had been seen on a lesbian cruise and immediate questions concerning her sexuality were raised. Ms. Baxter got wind that a tabloid was going to "out" her so she went on The Today Show to out herself and take control of her story. Ms. Baxter's proactiveness destroyed the sensationalism of the story.

A second example of how to successfully handle a sex scandal is the way late night talk show host David Letterman reacted during his recent sex scandal. Mr. Letterman admitted the sexual affairs on his show. In general, Mr. Letterman has so far come out relatively unscathed. The only criticism of the manner in which this scandal has been handled is that CBS has refused to post Mr. Letterman's admission on CBS.com and it has used its legal muscle to force Youtube.com to remove it on the basis of copyright infringement. Despite these actions, unauthorized copies of Mr. Letterman's public apology are easy to find on the Internet.

In contrast, Tiger has tried to ignore his current situation and it appeared that he hoped it would all blow over. There is a good possibility that it will no longer be in the news cycle in a couple of weeks. However, social media will keep it alive on the Internet. If Tiger would have come clean a few days ago and went on camera and stated something along the lines that he was upset when he left his house and this caused his car accident and that he has been unfaithful to his wife and he is sorry for the pain he caused the story would be over. However, refusing to come clean early in the news cycle of the story has only fueled the fire and allowed for tabloid fodder. The longer Tiger waits to come clean, the more he tarnishes his well-crafted image.

Therefore, due to the power of social media it is important to hire a legal and public relations team that understands the legal, business, and public relations consequences of each possible course of action. In my opinion, Tiger needs to reevaluate his legal and public relations strategy to incorporate the new reality of the Social Media Age.

Copyright 2009 by the Law Office of Bradley S. Shear, LLC. All rights reserved.