a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tiger Woods strange mishap a case study in what not to do

Whatever is going on in the personal life of Tiger Woods is probably best left private. And the media --including bloggers-- should be careful not to exploit it. But the bizarre incident over the weekend and the developments arising from it do provide a case study in what not to do in crisis communications.

For the record, in the early hours of Friday morning Woods for some unknown reason drove his SUV out of his Florida driveway and ran over a fire hydrant and struck a tree. A neighbour called 911. His wife is said to have rescued him from the car by smashing the rear window with a golf club. At some point Woods was lying on the ground. He was treated at hospital for lacerations and other injuries. But nothing life threatening.

What little we know, of course, has set off far more questions than answers. This is why Woods and his high-priced lawyers, publicists and handlers are likely being reminded that a real-life crisis is much harder to manage than a golf tournament.

Like nature, the media abhor a vacuum. Yet instead of saying something publicly within 12 hours of the incident, as most PR professionals say one should, Woods waited until Sunday to release a statement on his website.

To his credit, Woods showed much contrition and took all responsibility. Better late than never.

However, Woods for some reason has repeatedly delayed speaking to police about the incident. Lawyers say he is not obliged to speak to them beyond providing driver's licence number, vehicle registration and proof of insurance.

What the lawyers say make legal sense in a court of law. But it doesn't make common sense in the court of public opinion. All that has been accomplished is the raising of suspicions that Woods has something to hide.

Now Woods is at the centre of a media feeding frenzy.

What would have happened if Woods had simply put out a prompt statement of contrition early Saturday that included a pledge to co-operate with authorities fully? Sure Woods might have been promptly charged with the Florida equivalent of dangerous driving as he still may. But most of the frenzy would have been confined to one news cycle.

Unlike golf, media relations don't allow you to hit a provisional shot off the tee. Don't let the media get ahead of you.

And the winner is -- Stephen Harper.

In the ongoing controversy over House of Commons testimony by diplomat Richard Colvin that detainees turned over to Afghan authorities by Canada's military were likely tortured, it is clear the Opposition won Round 1.

However, it is also clear the Harper government won Round 2 by seizing the agenda of a special Commons committee. It remains to be seen who will win the next round.

But one clear loser has to be Defence Minister Peter MacKay. His tactics of immediately trying to discredit a well-respected -- and well-liked -- senior public servant have not been well received by most observers.

This has likely been aggravated by the minister who, in the second week of the controversy, acknowledged that his office had indeed received at least two of Colvin's e-mails when the minister had given the initial impression of the opposite.

Last March, MacKay was pubicly rebuked by an American general for claiming the Russians violated Canadian air space when in fact international treaties had been respected.

An ambitious politician can't afford many hits like that on his or her credibility. Prime Minister Stephen Harper likely has one less potential leadership rival to worry about.

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