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How Tiger flubbed crisis management 101

So much for Tiger Woods' business prowess. The world's top-earning athlete has fumbled every move since scandal hit two weeks ago. Here is where he botched some basics in crisis management.
Image: Tiger Woods
"If you made that big a mistake, you got to come out and just be contrite, be honest, and just tell the public 'I was wrong'," Tiger Woods told ESPN in a 2007 interview about Michael Vick. He didn't follow his own advice.Michael Dwyer / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

So much for Tiger Woods' business prowess.

The world's No. 1 golfer and top-earning athlete has fumbled every move since the scandal involving allegations of serial infidelity hit two weeks ago. He hid the truth and has yet to face the public.

Woods needs a crash course in crisis management 101. When you are a world-famous brand, things can fall apart unless you quickly control the damage.

Polls show his popularity is in a free-fall. His commercials already have disappeared from broadcasts, though none of his sponsors have yet pulled their endorsement deals.

On Saturday, Gillette said it won't feature Woods in its ads for an unspecified period of time. It was the first major sponsor to distance itself from Woods since he announced late Friday he is taking an indefinite leave from golf to work on his marriage after allegations of infidelity surfaced in recent weeks.

"Each day there is new, somewhat negative information to this story, his brand takes a little hit," said Steve Rosner, president of 16W Marketing, a sports marketing agency in Rutherford, N.J. "The little hits will eventually add up to a big hit if the story continues to drag on."

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His image used to be one of a squeaky-clean family man, in contrast to the kind of shenanigans that often emerge from the personal lives of other professional athletes. Woods has been known to be compulsively focused and disciplined in everything he does.

That level of commitment to his sport helped make Woods the world's first $1 billion athlete, according to estimates by Forbes. In addition to his earnings from golf, he has also reaped a fortune from endorsements with top brands including Nike and Accenture.

Now Tiger Inc. is at risk — mainly because he has let this crisis manage him instead of the other way around.

"Tiger is known as a control freak, but what he has done is let this slip out of his control," said Jason Maloni, vice president of the sports and entertainment practice at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. "There is some hypocrisy here."

Here's where Woods botched some basics in crisis management:

Rule No. 1: Don't wait.
After Woods crashed his car outside his Florida home in the early hours of the Friday after Thanksgiving, he released a statement acknowledging the accident, but said nothing else.

Media reports said Woods refused to talk to the police. There were rumors that a spat with his wife over an alleged mistress preceded the crash, but Woods remained silent.

As the time ticked away, the story was being shaped by everyone but Woods. He became the butt of jokes, and multiple women alleging affairs with him shared kinky details with the tabloids.

Two days after the accident, Woods issued another statement. It was vague at best.

Woods should have taken his own advice from 2007, when he was asked about what football star Michael Vick could do to rehabilitate his image after facing dogfighting charges.

"If you made that big a mistake, you got to come out and just be contrite, be honest, and just tell the public 'I was wrong'," Woods said in an interview with ESPN. "I think waiting a long time got a lot of people polarized."

David Letterman dealt better with his indiscretions by admitting to them quickly.

In early October, the late-night comic acknowledged on his show that he had sexual relationships with female employees and that someone tried to extort $2 million from him over the affairs. Letterman made those admissions the same day that Robert Halderman was arrested for the alleged plot.

Letterman didn't lose any of his major advertisers, which include Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus and DirecTV Group Inc.

Rule No. 2: Don't run from the truth.
When Woods issued his first statement on Nov. 29, he described "many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me." He pleaded for privacy.

Woods left the impression that the allegations were not true. Three days later, he changed his story.

"I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart," Woods said.

That statement came too late and "smelled of being drafted by lawyers," says crisis management expert Mike Paul. "What do 'transgressions' really mean?"

"There was nothing heartfelt about it," said Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR.

Paul, who specializes in rebuilding reputations of celebrities, corporations and CEOs, also noted the statement attacked the media. Wood said he was "dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means."

Rule No. 3: Don't hide.
Woods hasn't been seen since the accident. The only human face on this story are the women who say they've had relationships with him.

"I don't think this will go away until people see his eyes and his body language, and get a sense from him that he is sincere," said Rosner of 16W Marketing.

Woods must figure out whether he'll face the public directly, and how. A setting like Oprah Winfrey's talk show could be considered too controlled.

Another venue might be at an upcoming golf tournament, where he would be surrounded by friends and colleagues but also knowledgeable — and potentially sympathetic — media. That could help shift attention back to his golf game.

This story isn't going away on its own. Every day that passes, Woods stands to lose more. He should use the discipline and focus he's known for to get this mess under control.