It has been widely reported that Tiger Woods will not play in his own tournament, or appear at other events before the end of the year. His stated reason for withdrawing from public view is that he was injured in his unexplained car accident. However, his injuries were reported to be minor. More likely, it is the concern about damage to his reputation that has sent him into seclusion. His situation underlines the lasting result of the first choices an individual or organization makes after a negative event, and the impact of public scrutiny on even the most well-liked public figures.
The effect of the accident itself on his reputation, and on his career as an endorser, should have been minimal. But Tiger may be making the situation much worse by his subsequent choices. Now he has stimulated the imaginations of millions of people by compounding the mystery of what actually happened with behavior that appears evasive, if not suspicious.
Fans of irony will also appreciate the unintended consequence of one of his most visible campaigns. Plastered over the walls of airports everywhere is the image of Tiger Woods considering his next shot in Accenture’s long-running ad series. The headline reads: “It’s what you do next that counts.”
No kidding. Especially in public situations. Tiger’s decision to hide and ask for privacy offers lessons for individuals and organizations facing the heat of unplanned attention.
The first, and biggest, point we can take away from Tiger Woods’ brush with infamy is that public figures can have no expectation of privacy in a 24-hour, instant-information world.
This is especially true for people who sell their celebrity as endorsers, as Tiger Woods has done. Even beloved celebrities don’t earn the right to privacy–no matter how much they protest to the contrary. At best, well-liked public figures with “good guy” images may have more reputation resilience. That is, their reputation will recover more quickly, overall, than others in similar situations. But if fame has a cost today, it isn’t just the loss of privacy, it is the risk of instant infamy.
The second lesson to take from the Mr. Woods’ experience is: No matter what, celebrities, executives, and organizations that come under investigation should rapidly declare their intent to cooperate with authorities. Declining to be interviewed by the police in an accident where you were the driver just looks like defensive legal maneuvering, or arrogance. Neither is good for anyone’s reputation. Cooperation may not be the best legal approach for people or companies that have something to hide, but that’s just the point. Resistance to an official inquiry is widely seen as a signal that there must be more to know, information that is worth trying to keep out of view. There is no better bait for the gossip media and public speculation.
Like the maxim in science that nature abhors a vacuum, celebrity gossip also hates an absence of information. If the people involved don’t talk, everyone else will, including the police. Once the speculation is out there, and especially if there isn’t much factual information to go on, the same theorizing and assumptions are replayed over and over. As a result, a celebrity drama can quickly be blown up into a crisis. Thanks to the long-lasting nature of internet content, it stays out there in public view, no matter what is ultimately disclosed.
What is the economic impact of this imbroglio on Woods and his sponsors? That question is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The outlook for Tiger is probably good, unless there is a lot more, and worse, that we haven’t yet heard about his situation. The volatility and recovery of the economic value of reputation can be measured and tracked over time. So, we can say with certainty that celebrities, executives, and companies with mostly positive reputations will almost always bounce back from their first scandal.
It’s important to realize that reputation isn’t just one thing. It is a collection of attributes, and each attribute of Tiger’s reputation that this event harms will recover at a different rate. Eventually, when more is known or more time has passed, his reputation value will recover overall. But certain elements may never be strong again and a lot depends on how much more there is to the story he wants to suppress.
While his reptuation value may recover, his reputation risk will be higher. Reputation risk is the likelihood of further negative change in reputation value, whether from deeper impact of the current situation, or a new pattern of negative events or other reptuation damage. For a visible public figure who is compensated as an endorser, higher reputation risk may lead to the quiet renegotiation of contracts at a discounted fee, or if things get worse for him, the end of sponsor relationships.
But, as this situation unfolds or is resolved, some of Tiger Woods’ reputation elements may rise in value. He may also be more attractive to some new sponsors who are looking for a little more edge, and want to take advantage of his temporary (we assume) brush with infamy.
How could Tiger have avoided most of the impact of this situation on his reptutation and its value? For well-regarded, high-profile personalities or visible institutions and their leaders, the best antidote to instant notoriety is already well known:
- Announce at least the basic facts yourself, before the media and amature gossip sleuths go off hunting for experts to speculate on what happened.
- Cooperate with the authorities, or at least declare your intent to cooperate.
- Aim for quick resolution, including disclosure of enough details to avoid independent digging for “what really happened.”
- Admit fault, to some degree, and commit to do better. (Tiger Woods did say the accident was his fault, but he eliminated the benefit of that statement by asking for the impossible–privacy–and declining the opportunity to look contrite and cooperative when the police asked to interview him.)
- Follow the resolution of the incident with a period of being as boring as possible. The person in the spotlight should recommit to focusing on the activity, skill or talent that created the original reason for his or her fame.
- Celebrities and high-profile executives should rehearse what to do in the event of a situation that can attract negative attention. Organizations invest time preparing for inevitable, but unpredictable, crises. Individuals can do the same.
As the ad says, it’s what you do next that counts…Tiger.