Just Listen: Tiger's PR Mistakes

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was so curious about how Tiger Woods has handled his situation from a PR perspective, I spoke to Roger Gillott, President of Los Angeles-based Gillott Communications LLC, a strategic PR firm. He specializes in positioning clients strategically and doing damage control with companies and professional services firms when incidents such as the ones surrounding Tiger Woods threaten their reputation.

Gillott told me the following:

Tiger's underlying error is his delusion that he has a private life. He doesn't. Nor does anyone else who lives in the limelight and receives $100 million a year to do it.

True, that's more of a sad commentary on society's voyeuristic obsession with celebrity than it is on Tiger's foibles. But bemoaning it won't change it. The rule is simple: Accept it and deal with it. If you don't, the damage to your reputation will be quick and devastating.

What should Tiger have done? Gotten out in front of issue on Day One. Seize control of the issue, define the terms of the debate, preempt speculation by disclosing the facts (especially the uncomfortable ones). Apologize. Ask forgiveness. Admit "transgressions" and be specific. The goal: Make it a one-day story - or at least short-lived. Think David Letterman.

Tiger did the opposite: First he stonewalled, then - a week into the debacle - issued a weak apology that was vague and left more questions unanswered than it resolved. Which did nothing to calm the media feeding frenzy. Now more than two weeks into the sideshow, the media (especially the tabloids and celebrity channels) have tasted blood and are going to keep this story alive as long as they can. It sells magazines and fills airtime. Think O.J. Simpson, Mark Sanford or John Edwards.

Perhaps saddest of all, the Tiger brand is suffering. Initially, it appeared possible that the hit to his business empire might be minimized: That current clients wouldn't abandon him, even if those who were thinking about having him as an endorser might now have second thoughts. But that hope has deteriorated.

The longer the story drags out, the more dirt finds its way to the surface. Tiger's wholesome, squeaky-clean image - one of his key selling points - is badly tarnished. His once-ubiquitous TV endorsement ads have largely disappeared. Gillette is dialing back its relationship, and Accenture canceled its long-standing endorsement deal. Pepsi has dropped a Gatorade drink that bears his name - and even though Pepsi claims the decision isn't related to the current scandal, the timing is suspect and the public is dubious.

The lesson? Take control at the outset. That's when your options are the greatest. With each passing day and each new revelation, your options become more limited, until all that remains is trying to patch the damage that could have been avoided by acting swiftly and decisively.