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12.02.09

Could It Get Worse?

As Tiger Woods faces new adultery allegations, he’s borrowing a damage-control strategy from another brilliant media manipulator: Steve Jobs.

Tiger Woods said Wednesday his " transgressions" have "let my family down." As the golfer faces new adultery allegations, Eric Dezenhall says he’s borrowing a damage-control strategy from another brilliant media manipulator: Steve Jobs.

Reporters, pundits, and PR flacks are diving in front of cameras to peddle hackneyed chestnuts about how Tiger Woods would be well-served by a press conference where he “fesses up” to his automotive and marital shortcomings.

They are all wrong.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Tiger is not a public figure; he is an icon, and icons are known equally for what they don’t do as what they do do. Paul Newman didn’t marry and divorce a series of ingénues. Warren Buffett doesn’t live in a mansion. Jacqueline Onassis didn’t talk about what it was like to watch her husband murdered in the back seat of a Lincoln convertible.

Tiger, the icon, doesn’t lose his cool. Icon Tiger doesn’t get photographed with self-promoting gummi-tarts. And Icon Tiger doesn’t line-item air his dirty laundry in front of millions of people just because they want to hear about it.

Jobs consistently violates every rule of damage-control doctrine—he’s arrogant, secretive, slippery, uncuddly… and comes out on top after media storms.

In this way, Tiger is like another icon, Steve Jobs. To the rabid fury of the press and public-relations priesthood, Jobs consistently violates every rule of damage-control doctrine—he’s arrogant, secretive, slippery, uncuddly… and comes out on top after media storms.

Tiger, like Jobs, is in the game for the long haul. Their shared goal is to preserve brand integrity, not to satisfy short-term press and public currents. Accordingly, whatever Tiger does say, and wherever he does appear, he will need to do it in a way that is faithful to this brand. Wednesday’s broad-brush statement is brand-consistent.

Lisa DePaulo: Tiger’s Ferocious Drive

Jacob Bernstein: The Mysterious Mrs. Woods
In the green room Monday before a television interview about the status of Tiger’s damage-control non-campaign, a producer bristled at why the athlete was being “so damned reclusive.” I told her that in the digital age, a recluse is just somebody who doesn’t have a sex tape on the Internet.

Wendy Murphy: Was Tiger a Victim? In the postmodern era, when anybody can grab your home address from the White Pages online and then zoom in on the front door of your house on Google Earth, the culture has malignantly mistaken its desire for intimate information with its right to know it.

The “fess up” cliché assumes that the media climate has not changed since the 1990s. Today we crisis managers are wary of “feeding the beast” because today’s beast never gets full.

The point here is not that repentance and public disclosure are unnecessary—they often are—but that there is no correlation between the quantity of the repentance/disclosure and the cessation of inevitable media and online chatter.

Michael Deaver, President Reagan’s legendary image maker, exploited the feed-the-beast strategy best (By way of disclosure, I worked for his office in the early 1980s). The logic was that if the White House didn’t keep the prestige media, which consisted of the major daily newspapers, wire services, and three television networks, occupied with a steady drumbeat of positive images of the president, it would start running damaging stories.

During this Dinosaur Age (1960s-1990s) of one-cycle news, Deaver’s strategy was effective. You said what you had to say, showed what you wanted to show, and poof, the media defaulted back to MacGyver. Few stories warranted revisiting 24 hours later.

But today’s scandal figures and handlers are learning through our own follies that feeding the postmodern beast only makes it hungrier because the beast is infinite. It’s a mathematical thing: There are television networks, hundreds of cable channels, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Hulu, Digg, independent bloggers, instant messages, and frantic newspapers on their deathbeds that must be attended to. These media are not passive delivery systems for news; they are motivated investors in prolonging the circus.

Take Don Imus. I lost count of how many apologies he offered after he insulted the Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007, but there were plenty. Plus, Imus had to endure the crucible of being berated on camera by Al Sharpton. A geometric explosion of old and new media rants followed every episode of contrition. Exposure begets exposure, and any communications guru claiming he’s got a software program that can stop millions of anonymous guttersnipes from posting that “my sister’s accountant’s cousin’s masseuse had sex with Tiger Woods in the back of a Gran Torino in Bayonne” is just doing shtick.

Tiger’s brand equity lies in his spectacular results and intense resolve. To this end, Tiger knows better than to appear before cameras all banged up, therefore sparking a viral blaze of speculation about what his injuries are and are not. He also knows there is nothing to be gained by sustaining withering fire at a press conference. And he knows that regardless of how he “handles” the media, there is a 100 percent chance that his handling will be deemed subpar (forgive me) and “too little too late” by those in whose self-interest it is to render such controversial diagnoses.

What, then, does a Tiger do when he has himself by the tail? The most troubling aspect of his case had been his refusal to speak with police. There was probably a good legal reason for this, but it was draining his equity on the brand side by sending the signal that the law is for everybody else. In a democratic culture, we cut our betters a certain amount of slack, but being above the law sets off alarm bells. But with last night's issuance of a simple traffic ticket, silence may have been golden there, too.

At some point, sooner than later, Tiger may need to conduct a minimalist interview with one very civil reporter where he will need to paint the events of the last few days with a broad brush. Barring a game-changing revelation (i.e., a new Carrie Prejean videotape), he is under no obligation to disclose details, or even say much more than he did in his recent statement. But we may need to see some optical display of humanity if, for no other reason, than to give his sponsors permission to stand behind him.

Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.