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How Can Tiger Get Up From His Fall?

December 21, 2009

Shortly after seven people died in Chicago from cyanide-laced Tylenol in 1982, advertising guru Jerry Della Femina told The New York Times: "I don't think they can ever sell another product under that name. There may be an advertising person who thinks he can solve this and if they find him, I want to hire him, because then I want him to turn our water cooler into a wine cooler." Tylenol fell from a 37 percent market share to 7. Yet a year later, in what is regarded as the gold standard of crisis management, Tylenol was back to 30 percent and it remains a top seller. On the first anniversary of the deaths, Compton Advertising, the Tylenol agency, sent Della Femina a water cooler filled with wine.

The moral: Most problems can be fixed if properly confronted. With that, Golf World contacted six experts in crisis management to evaluate the Tiger Woods situation and offer advice on potential courses of action for the beleaguered star.

Jeff Eller

Public Strategies, Inc.

"There are fundamentals to be followed in any crisis, but unless you are actually in there, you just don't know [what's going on]. I can't find a lot of fault with what he has done, [but] what they needed was to act quicker. There was a gap between [the car crash] and the website posting. That gap was filled with an ongoing set of stories. I suspect there was a period of denial. It's human nature. That gap was filled fast.

"The only one who can answer [when he should return] is Tiger. He has to get his head to a place where he thinks he can compete at the level he is capable of. [When he returns] he shouldn't recast himself in any fundamental way. In politics, a prime directive is that you don't put your candidate in funny hats. Don't try to make him something he is not.

"He should sit down with your magazine. In politics, you go back to your base. You are his base. We love a comeback story in America. And he can do it. I'm not saying it will be easy, but if he's got the mental discipline to work through it, [he] can do it."

William M. Moran

McCarter & English LLP

"It wasn't handled correctly when this whole crisis first began. After the accident, the news the next day was that he refused to speak to the police. And then a second day passed and he refused to speak to the police. And then a third day. By then every editor in the country was sending out his investigative reporters saying, 'Find out what he is hiding.'

"He might have done better to speak with police with his lawyer and say, 'Hey look, I had an argument with my wife, I'm not going to tell you why. I flew out of the house in a rage, and I cracked up my car. I was an idiot. I made a mistake, I feel embarrassed. But I think that answers your questions.' Then he goes back to his website and says, 'Give me privacy. I'm embarrassed and, by the way, I fully cooperated with police.' He lost control of the story, which in crisis management is key.

"He needs to miss a few [tournaments]. It will demonstrate his value to the game. And when he does come back, the story is not just about his infidelity, but also about his comeback to golf. Then he regains a measure of control. I don't know if he will ever get to the level of income he has now. But assuming he wins, he will get back to a level he will be very happy with."

Jonathan Bernstein

Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

"If he wants people to think he's not golf's equivalent of a bad-boy basketball player or a bad-boy football player, he needs to spend time rehabilitating his personal image. He needs time to allow the public to sort out fact from fiction. Whatever the story is, let's identify it and then we can move past it. But he still has too many loose ends. From a public memory point of view, he needs to take a year off. Time heals and makes people forget. And it is going to take him time to return to the focus he was famous for and to be prepared for the media storm when he returns. I would guess that psychologically he is pretty shaky right now.

"He would benefit tremendously if he would let down his guard a bit and say, 'Hey, I'm just human and I screwed up and I'm learning from that and I hope you'll give me the time to do that.' People are much more forgiving if you act very human instead of like a robot.

"There are five critical tenets of crisis communication. Be prompt; be honest; be informative; be compassionate; and be interactive. How would I grade him [on an A to F scale]? I would have to give him a G."

Dan McGinn

TMG Strategies

"He has to explain more and has to apologize more, but the timing in these things is what tends to get lost in the flurry of activity. What I say to people is the John Wooden line: 'Be quick but don't hurry.' You've got to have a pace and a timing that works.

"As far as a comeback, what I say to my clients is, 'What do you really need to do to address the problem?' Put aside the communication issues. Put aside the pressure from your sponsors. Put aside the chase for the most major titles. What is the real nature of the problem and what is the best advice from the experts to correct it in a substantive way?

"There are ways to position it. I would say Tiger Woods is one of the greatest athletes of all time, and he had one of the greatest collapses of all time. But he also has the potential to have one of the greatest comebacks of all time. He may never achieve the level that he [reached previously] and he may never be looked at the same way, but there is a road to recovery that can be very successful and very fruitful.

There are five critical tenets of crisis communication: be prompt, be honest, be informative, be compassionate, be interactive. How would I grade him? ... I'd give him a G. -- Jonathan Bernstein'

"He is going to have to have a new humility. People want to know 'Do you really get it? You hurt a lot of people.' Does it look like he wants to earn it back rather than just get it back? He needs great counseling support. People see this as a circus and entertainment. For him it is his life. He's dealing with the emotions of this -- fear, uncertainty, shame. The worst thing he can do is rush back and have a new problem. If he tries to deal with this as merely a PR problem, he is going to be a major failure. It will be seen through."

Ken Scudder

Virgil Scudder & Associates

"What I would recommend is one interview with Oprah or Larry King. Then he should do one press conference. Take questions and then say, 'This is the only time I am going to talk about this.' I'm not even sure he should [take a break from competitive golf]. Winning won't make this go away, but it will help a lot. If he can get his mind in a state to play, I don't think it would be the worst thing -- if he does the interview and the press conference first. [Once he does] the interview and the press conference, any time someone asks him about this he can say, 'Look, I answered all that in my press conference. I'm here to talk about golf.' "

Marsha Friedman

Event Management Services Inc.

"He needs to shift his worldview. It's not enough for him to show penitence, but he has to actually be penitent. He needs to believe intrinsically that the betrayal of his wife and of the public's trust was wrong. Any rehabilitation in the public eye must be preceded by at least the beginnings of a rehabilitation within himself.

"He also needs to feed the media beast. The questions that he isn't answering aren't going to fade away with time. He needs to call Oprah or Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters and tell his story. He needs to do an interview that is exhaustive, so every embarrassing question is asked and answered without rehearsal. It needs to be genuine. People are angry because he not only betrayed his family, he betrayed us all.

"Tiger was placed on a pedestal by the fans and media. That pedestal is gone, and he needs to take time off from golf not to stay out of the public eye but to repair the damage in both his private and public life. Privately, he needs to figure out what it takes to be a husband and father. Publicly, he needs to get back out among his fans, to talk to them about his journey toward personal redemption.

"He needs to speak to small groups, inner-city associations, support groups -- anyone who will listen to him detail what went wrong with his life that led to such a monumental betrayal. He needs to do it without fanfare and do it humbly and with a sincere sense of public service. After he has done that, then and only then should he consider coming back to golf.

"The irony is, if he truly does find personal absolution in his private character rehabilitation, the end result will be that he will likely return to his old form. Golf, more than just about any other sport, requires a focus, a peace, a singular ability to tune out everything else in order to play. Finding his inner peace and fixing the darkness within him that caused this mess will result in him becoming a better golfer than he already is today."