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Tiger Must Do More Than

Gene Grabowski

When Tiger Woods hits a 300-yard drive on the golf course, it’s hardly big news. But when he takes a 300-yard drive at 2:30 a.m. that ends in a crash at the foot of his neighbor’s driveway, it’s another story altogether.

If you’re an avid sports fan like me, chances are you spent some time this weekend glued to ESPNews for the latest information on what was reported to be a “serious” single-car accident involving a man who is perhaps the world’s most popular athlete. But once word spread that Tiger Woods had been admitted, treated, and released from the hospital, concern instantly gave way to curiosity. Why was Tiger driving so fast? Where was he going at such a late hour? Did it have anything to do with National Enquirer reports of an extra-marital affair?

Thus far, the central question in what has evolved into a full-blown media firestorm remains unanswered by the only people that can shed light on the episode – Tiger and his wife, Elin. As a result, control of the story has been ceded to whoever wants to tell it. In the few days since the story broke, we’ve heard rampant speculation ranging from drunk driving to domestic abuse.

The incomplete statement Tiger finally released on his website after canceling three meetings with police only added fuel to the fire. With every hour that we are left to wonder what really happened, rumor and innuendo begin to look more like fact. Meanwhile, Tiger’s worried sponsors are demanding more details.

Tiger is absolutely within his rights to keep the matter as private as a celebrity of his stature possibly can. But he must assert greater control over a narrative that is taking on a life of its own.

First, he needs to address the events that preceded his crash without revealing potentially embarrassing specifics, but do so in a credible way that establishes a common bond with his audience. For instance, if he was taking a drive to cool off after a domestic argument (which, I must note, has not been confirmed by any credible source), he could admit it and then ask us to show some understanding and respect his family’s privacy. Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can relate to that. Without first establishing that platform of credibility, nobody will believe anything else he says.

Furthermore, the fact that Tiger’s only public statement about the accident was conveyed via his website may be seen by many as “e-mailing it in.” While someone like Matt Drudge or Perez Hilton – celebrities whose reputations were made almost exclusively in the online space – could get away making the Internet his or her primary messaging venue in crisis, someone like Tiger, whose reputation has been built on visual media like television and video, cannot. The public that idolizes and supports Tiger’s image needs to see and hear him tell his own story. Absent that, questions about what Tiger may be hiding – as unfounded as they may be – will only intensify.

Even after his initial missteps, Tiger can still assume control of the story whenever he chooses. But the longer he waits, the greater the chances that what he refers to as “false, unfounded and malicious rumors” will gain traction and credibility among the loyal audiences he’s worked so hard to cultivate.

Gene Grabowski is Senior Vice President of Crisis and Litigation at Levick Strategic Communications, the nation’s top crisis communications firm, and a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog. Connect with him @crisisguru.


UPDATE 12/2: Bulletproof contributing author Jason Maloni participated in  a live chat on this topic  on WashingtonPost.com today. Read the transcript here.

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