The Tiger Trap
Tiger Wood’s expected announcement that he’s returning to therapy is even more puzzling than a typical apology. Jacob Bernstein reports on the golfer’s latest PR problems.
Tiger Woods is returning to therapy after speaking publicly for the first time Friday morning about his infidelities, according to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. The expected announcement is even more puzzling than a typical apology. Jacob Bernstein reports on the golfer’s latest PR problems.
There’s no shortage of answers to the question of how Tiger Woods might go about reintroducing himself to the public. None of them are particularly good ones.
On Friday morning at 11 a.m., Woods will be speaking at the PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to what a press release from his agency IMG described as a “small group of friends, colleagues and close associates…Tiger plans to discuss his past and his future and he plans to apologize for his behavior.”
Most likely, Woods will also provide some sort of timetable for when he plans on returning to golf, and general expectations are that he will be back in the game by March or April at the latest. And as has been reported by the Associated Press, Woods will say something about the therapy he’s undergoing for apparently having sex with too many women that weren’t his wife.
“He has to apologize on some AOL columnist’s terms? There’s a reason people hate the media.”
Whatever he says will be a version of a time-honored American ritual: the celebrity mea culpa. At this point, it’s practically a religious experience. A-Rod announced his steroid use to a room full of people who already knew he was a juicer. Hugh Grant and Kanye West went on The Tonight Show to be publicly dressed down by Jay Leno for cavorting with a hooker and bullying a young pop star, respectively. After hurling anti-semitic remarks at a police officer, Mel Gibson subjected himself to an hour of being iced by Diane Sawyer.
The difference this time is that the sinner will have no interlocutor and members of the audience—which will include a handpicked group of journalists—will not have the opportunity to ask questions. Which is why this carefully planned event has already been criticized for being too orchestrated—another misguided attempt on the part of a celebrity who’s still trying to control the press long after he lost the upper hand.
• VIDEO: 7 Dos and Don'ts of Celebrity Affair ConfessionsIf Woods is truly sorry, the criticism goes, why won’t he stand there and subject himself to a public inquisition? Chris Brown gave a videotaped statement after he beat up his girlfriend, Rihanna, then waited about five months to give a live interview. You can see for yourself how well that worked for him.
How can Woods truly establish contrition for his actions when he won’t even subject himself to the discomfort of being challenged about them? Isn’t this what’s required of a public figure who’s had a meltdown and wants redemption?
The move has rubbed even one of his longest and quietest allies the wrong way. According to the Associated Press, the Golf Writers Association of America “voted overwhelmingly not to participate” when Woods makes his announcement.
“I cannot stress how strongly our board felt that this should be open to all media and also for the opportunity to question Woods,” the AP quotes Vartan Kupelian, president of the 950-member group, as saying. “The position, simply put, is all or none. This is a major story of international scope. To limit the ability of journalists to attend, listen, see and question Woods goes against the grain of everything we believe.”
Says Al DiGuido, chief executive of Zeta Interactive, which compiles data on celebrities and their favorability ratings: “The way he structured it is already a negative. The story is out of control his control and he’s saying under this construct, ‘I’m not going to take any questions.’”
According to calculations using data DiGuido claims to have compiled from “more than 150 million blogs and online media sites,” Woods’ approval rating has already dropped from 91 percent to 51 percent. For Woods to win back public sympathy, Di Guido believes, “he needs to answer as many questions as are required so that people get an understanding of what happened. In this democracy, the public gets to ask questions and the media functions as their representative.”
Matthew Hiltzik, a crisis manager and public relations guru to Katie Couric and Alec Baldwin, agreed that the format of the press conference had a downside, though he sounded somewhat less aggrieved by Woods’ alleged arrogance.
“From a journalist’s standpoint, I don’t see the appeal of attending,” Hiltzik said. “I understand why his people are structuring the event this way—they’re trying to reassert control over their message after months of losing it. In the medium to long term, Tiger’s going to be fine, but this controlled environment has the potential to further alienate people who won’t get the answers they want.”
Certainly, Woods is attempting to have his cake and eat it too. The release goes on to say: “While Tiger feels that what happened is fundamentally a matter between he and his wife, he also recognizes that he has hurt and let down a lot of other people who were close to him.”
Telling the press that his infidelity is none of its business as he's issuing a public apology for it is a little like spitting in someone’s eye while shaking his hand.
And as Chip Brown—who penned a New York Times Magazine piece on the golf pro a couple years back—argued, Woods can’t simply return to the course and behave as if nothing ever happened.
“There are certain things he can’t change,” he said. “You’re talking about his image, and that’s been shattered forever. He can’t just show up and start hitting golf balls again.”
Not that there’s any good alternative.
“I don’t know what he needs to say,” said Victor Stango, a professor at UC Davis who did a study on how much value corporations lost as a result of Woods’ public relations fiasco. (Estimate: $12 billion.) “The problem he faces is particularly severe. In many other instances where celebrities get into trouble, we already had the idea that the celebrity wasn’t perfect. When Charles Barkley got arrested, there were many people who were unsurprised by that.”
“This example is almost unique in how completely it changed the public perception of the athlete,” Stango said.
Chip Brown said he thought there was something almost commendable in Woods’ hard-headedness, and in his inability to fully engage in a public mea culpa process that (let’s face it) is always a bit of a sham.
“People are already criticizing him for the uber-controlled press conference and not allowing the great investigative reporters from the National Enquirer and Us Weekly into the room to ask him about Jamie Grubb,” he said. “He has to apologize on some AOL columnist’s terms? There’s a reason people hate the media. Tiger Woods didn’t do anything wrong that involves the public. He’s a great golfer and a lousy husband.”
Judy Smith, a crisis manager who has advised embattled public figures ranging from David Paterson to Michael Vick, said, “I think if he went by the public-apology playbook, it would not be believable. It’s inconsistent with who he appears to be as a person. It’s apparent that his relationship with the media has been distant. To try to create something that’s inconsistent with that could create a whole new set of problems for him.”
Of course, there’s one thing that would render all this talk basically moot: the sight of Woods’ estranged wife, Elin Nordegrin standing beside him as he delivers his statement. The chances of that, though? Less than 50 per cent.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.