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Eric Dezenhall Headshot

A Salvage Job in Tiger's America

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As the golf ball in the Tiger Woods morass bounces on, let us pause to dispense with the community college PR course clichés about how the answer to Tiger's woes would have been an immediate Tell-it-to-Oprah-Two-Step. The cold truth of crisis management is that "telling your side of the story" only works when you have a story to tell. Tiger doesn't. Not yet anyway.

As a school of salmon watching the histrionics of one of their own caught on a fisherman's line sees only an inexplicable thrashing -- but not the lethal hook -- the pundit class sniffs at what appears to be malpractice on the part of Team Tiger.

The skills it takes to be a champion athlete are acquired in a narrow theater of play, such as a golf course. In crisis management -- my business -- the tiny skill-set of your client is irrelevant, and the protagonist who caused his crisis has limited influence over the cascade of events he ignited.

That's why it's a crisis.

As the chin-scratchers on the airwaves offer dollops of wisdom such as "a crisis is an opportunity," know this: crises are very bad things, and the only beneficiaries are the consumers and retailers of what masquerades as news, not to mention the siliconettes looking to score a ribbon of strip-mall infamy.

What a scandal figure should do quickly collapses under the weight of what he actually can do. When Tiger slammed into that fire hydrant, he was also hit by a proverbial fire truck. His life as he knew it was over. He was in no physical or mental condition to sit down with Oprah -- or even his inner circle.

Tiger is a golfer with virtually no experience in dealing with pushback of any kind, as opposed to, say, Bill Clinton who has spent a career talking his way out of sexual back-alleys.

The America that spawned the Oprah-Two-Step no longer exists. Drive-thru absolution removed bird-crap from windshields when there were three evening newscasts lasting twenty minutes; a sense of shame; and the remnants of Puritan sexual propriety. You cried for Barbara Walters and moved on.

Today, there is no moving on; the news is both infinite and constant; shame is a relic; and anyone who dredges up that old canard about Americans being sexually repressed hasn't looked up Britney Spears' skirt on the Internet and seen her ovaries winking at them.

In Tiger's America, privacy is the lowest form of corruption and "transparency" the highest virtue. Our culture deliberately misrepresents what we desperately want to know with what we have the right to know. The notion that the public is looking for an apology in the Judeo-Christian sense is a comic swindle. Today's catharses aren't spiritual; they are commercial.

The very suggestion that we don't have the right to see our betters crucified sparks frothing outrage. I sparred with a reporter friend who advocated the Oprah/Barbara-Two-Step. The verbal scuffle concluded with me saying, "You make your living getting people to hang themselves with their words on the con that it'll be good for them. Don't mistake what's in your interest with what's in Tiger's."

To fight back against damaging allegations, one needs what I call a Plausible Alternative Narrative, or PAN. If the version of events the public is hearing is false or distorted, what, then, is true?

Damage-control successes all have a PAN: When Kobe Bryant faced rape allegations a few years ago, he argued that his encounter with a woman in a Colorado hotel was consensual, and his defense team raised persuasive doubts about the credibility of his accuser until prosecutors dropped the case. During the Lewinsky drama, Bill Clinton was exposed as an adulterer, but a special prosecutor investigating the sex life of the president (which is how much of the public saw it) struck many as being worse.

Has it occurred to anyone that Tiger's "story" may be terrible, and that telling it to the world helps no one he cares about? And if "coming clean" is such a universally brilliant damage control device, why doesn't everybody do it?

Soccer icon, David Beckham simply told a clamoring media and public to pound sand when multiple adultery allegations surfaced in 2004. While salacious text exchanges, purportedly between Tiger and a few women, have surfaced, a majority of the reports are anchored firmly in unvetted cyber-gossip proving that both the public and the prestige-media are willing to give a disturbing amount of credence to anybody with a laptop.

What's more: sometimes the scandal-plagued don't want to incriminate themselves legally as Tiger may have done to himself and his wife had he opened up to police right after the accident; Public figures aren't too keen about offering detailed forensic descriptions of their nether-regions to be debated on nightly shout-fests; The fallen want to work things out with their families, not bloggers; and sometimes attack targets resent the way "transparency" only seems to apply to those that cultural taste-makers wants to take down (Carrie Prejean) not those they want to promote (Candidate Obama).

When a crisis is rooted in a singular misstep, confessions and televised self-flagellation can work. But when you are dealing with patterns of behavior that are either reprehensible or in violent contradiction with what we think we know about someone, the reactions to breast-beating broadcasts are inevitably that they were botched, "too little too late," or "didn't go far enough." No matter how many times Don Imus submitted himself to these atonement crucibles, every one was deemed a failure.

Even if Tiger had sat down with Oprah and acquitted himself well, how could anyone with the slightest awareness of contemporary media and cyber-smears believe this would stop opportunistic guttersnipes from offering televised rebuttals?

So what are the best of Tiger's bad options?

Recognize that you can't rebuild a house in a hurricane, and that with salvage jobs, you can't save everything.

Tend to the "inside game" that's good for you, not the "outside" game that's good for the rest of us.

First is your health and family. You've got a mega-yacht. Use it.

Then play golf. You seem to do it well according to my sources.

In the superb damage control film, Michael Clayton, George Clooney's fixer character told a client with absurd expectations, "I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor." I'm more optimistic than that for Tiger. He won't ever fully recover what he lost, but the variables of time and focus will redeem him inasmuch as Teddy Kennedy was partially redeemed after the fatality at Chappaquiddick.

Besides, during his recovery, Tiger can heal with the knowledge that it's only a matter of time before Lindsey Lohan goes missing in a homemade balloon.