Celebrity Crisis Management 101

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"If you made a big mistake, you got to come out and just be contrite, be honest, and just tell the public `I was wrong`."
Tiger Woods (2007)

The fall of Tiger Woods, the world`s most highest paid athlete, is a classic example of bad crisis management. His many affairs have dominated the headlines since the scandal first broke in November 2009, when he crashed his car and refused to talk to the investigating police, clearly admitting he had something to hide from the public. But silence isn`t golden in all cases, particularly when it comes to crisis management. In every crisis, there comes a moment where you have two choices: Either come out of the closet and honestly answer all questions the media asks, or letting your lawyers and spin doctors deal with it, hoping you can control the crisis until the public interest dies down - the latter being almost certainly doomed to failure.
Tiger Woods clearly chose door no. 2. While his countless mistresses - sniffing the chance of 15 minutes of fame - were more than happy to talk to the media, Tiger remained silent and watched his career rapidly falling apart. Sponsors like AT&T, Gilette and Accenture turned away from him and the glossies milked the scandal with relish, as more and more details were revealed. By not commenting, Tiger gave them material for months instead of ending it with a comprehensive statement. John Eckel, CEO of Alliance, a sports and entertainment marketing company, says: "There are two courts - a legal court and the court of public opinion, and they ignored the court of public opinion. He has been in free fall with his endorsements and had he gotten out in front, some of that may have been preventable." Tiger has let his crisis manage him, instead of the other way around.

Earlier in 2009, US late night king David Letterman found himself in a very similar scandal, but chose a whole different way of managing it. TV host who has been with his wife for over 20 years, admitted that he had sexual relationships with female employees, after one of them tried to extort $ 2 million from him over the affairs. He reacted quickly and acknowledged the affairs live on his show, before the media even had a chance to report on it. Therefore he was able to take control of the scandal and totally stole the media`s thunder. Watch his monologue here:

He approached the topic in a comical way and unlike Tiger, he managed to maintain his reputation and he didn`t lose any of his major advertisers, which include Toyota Lexus and Direct TV Group Inc. He later apologizes to his wife and his staff on the show as well. A couple of weeks later, he even found himself in a position to make fun of Tiger Wood`s scandal ("Stop calling me for advise") - that`s how quickly he was forgiven, just by telling the public the truth right away.

So after a couple of months, Tiger Woods finally got some good advise and held a press conference where he admitted his affairs and apologized to his family, his sponsors and the public. But it was too little too late. Tiger`s reputation is deeply damaged and the echo of this scandal will now follow his career for a long time.

So what do we learn from this in terms of crisis management? 3 simple rules:
  • Don`t wait. The media will find its way to get to information, and rumours will start to shape the story. Even worse, you lose control of the coverage.
  • Don`t run from the truth. When Tiger first addressed the issue, he described "many false, unfounded and malicious rumors circulating about my family and me". He tried to play the scandal down and left the impression that the allegations weren`t true - but they were.
  • Don`t hide. Tiger stopped making public appearances since the scandal broke, he hid from cameras and later moved to a rehab clinic. The only human faces on the story where the many women who claimed they had sex with him. It took him a long time until he finally decided to appear in front of a camera for his press conference.
Those three simple rules form the keystones of every crisis management practice. It`s all about transparancy, honesty and speed - no matter if the crisis is about celebrities, CEOs or corporations. They are all brands and the same rules apply to them.

Dezenhall, E. & Weber, J. (2007): Damage Control. Why everything you know about Crisis Management is wrong. New York: Portfolio Trade.

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