by Steve Adubato, PhD
Tiger Woods gets points for his “apology” this week, but he doesn’t get many. After nearly three months of no communication, the world’s greatest golfer and America’s most visible brand held a much anticipated “press conference” on Friday.
Woods communicated a lot of the right things. He said his behavior was “irresponsible and selfish”. He said “I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you…What I did is not acceptable. And, I am the only person to blame”.
When it comes to crisis communication, WHAT you say matters a lot. But, WHEN you say it often matters a lot more. Tiger Woods waited nearly three months to utter a single word. That was a dumb communication move.
He thought he could communicate via the internet after saying nothing after the initial incident. One of the biggest lessons here is that no one, not even the great Tiger Woods, can get away with apologizing online. It doesn’t work. People need to see you and ask themselves whether they believe you or not.
For what ever reason, Tiger Woods waited to make this public statement. And, simply put, he waited way too long. By waiting this long, much of what Woods said wound up falling on deaf ears. People wanted to hear this apology in the first couple of weeks after the Thanksgiving incident; anytime after that just wasn’t going to get it done.
By waiting three months, Woods raised the bar in terms of what people would expect from him. This was where he made his second serious communication mistake. He wouldn’t take any questions. He read a statement to a tightly controlled, hand selected room of friends, family, and supporters.
By refusing to answer any questions, Tiger Woods communicated that he had something to hide. He didn’t want to make himself any more vulnerable than he already was. On the human level, I understand that. But, from a practical communication point of view, public figures owe it to their audience to take questions and be held accountable—especially, given the tremendous public interest of this ongoing and highly embarrassing story.
Apparently, his communication advisors told him that he had more to lose by taking questions than by just reading his statement. They were dead wrong. Taking questions doesn’t mean you have to answer every question in detail. Woods could have easily said certain things were private, between him and his wife. He could have said he would be in a better position to respond to certain questions at a later point. Because, let’s face it, sooner or later, Tiger Woods is going to have to answer and deal with some very tough questions.
If the purpose of this long awaited statement was to stop the bleeding, Tiger Woods didn’t get it done. He’s only increased speculation and interest; not to mention resentment towards him. Even though his apology appeared to me to be heartfelt and genuine, he seems not to understand that, when it comes to communicating in a crisis, you can’t control every aspect of the process. In fact, the more you try to control it, the less empathy you receive.
Woods does get points for not having his wife stand next to him in some feeble attempt to show that his spouse still supports him (ala Jim McGreevy and Eliot Spitzer). Woods stood there alone, because like many of us who screw up big time, we alone must take responsibility for our actions. But, when the book is written on what is becoming a classic crisis communication case study, this will be one of the few things Tiger Woods did right.