Tiger Woods’ desire for privacy is as legendary as his golf game, but his near-silence following a car accident outside his Florida home last week has some public relations experts questioning his approach.
Experts in media relations and crisis management said the world’s top-ranked golfer is violating a basic rule of thumb: Address a possible embarrassing issue before rumors and speculation run wild.
“The best rule is to get out in front and be as transparent as you possibly can be,” said George Merlis, founder of Experience Media Consulting Group. “In a crisis, the recommendation is to let people know what you can let them know as soon as you can.”
Woods crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant and then a tree early Friday and was briefly hospitalized. His only public comment about the crash was a brief statement on his Web site. On Tuesday, the Florida Highway Patrol announced it cited Woods for careless driving; Woods had rebuffed several requests from the authorities to speak about the incident.
Woods announced Sunday he would not appear as host of this weekend’s Chevron World Challenge, a tournament that benefits his charitable foundation.
In the past week, speculation has swirled about the actions of his wife, Elin, who says she used a golf club to free Woods from the SUV. Celebrity gossip Web site TMZ reported that Woods’ facial wounds may have stemmed from a domestic altercation, not the crash.
Last week, the National Enquirer reported that Woods was having an affair with a night club hostess in New York, which the woman has denied. US Weekly on Tuesday reported that Woods had a 31-month affair with a cocktail waitress, with further details - and a possibly incriminating voice mail recording - slated to be released Wednesday.
Woods has not addressed the reports of infidelity specifically, saying only that “the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.”
Public relations experts said that in the absence of comments from Woods, the tabloid reports, rumors and speculation could take over.
“If you don’t communicate, there is a vacuum that’s left into which all sorts of information will flow,” said Daniel Keeney, president of DPK Public Relations. “You have people coming up with all kinds of scenarios. To prevent that, you have to put your information out and define the parameters of the story.”
New York Yankees players Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte are examples of the value of coming clean. After being linked to performance-enhancing drugs, both players admitted to using the substances and apologized. Both players were hailed as heroes when the Yankees won the World Series in November. Meanwhile, other athletes linked to performance-enhancing drugs, including Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have faced continued criticism for their repeated denials.
“It’s always best if you’ve done something wrong to come forward with it and tell your story because it will come out - especially if you’re a public personality,” Keeney said.
Merlis pointed to swimmer Michael Phelps as an example of someone who benefited from responding to bad news quickly. After pictures surfaced of Phelps using a drug pipe, he acknowledged the situation and apologized.
Woods is under no legal obligation to speak to anyone, including the police. But refusing to submit to Florida Highway Patrol interviews sends a message, experts said, that he has something to hide.
“The better part of his earnings have come about as a spokesperson and [through] marketing opportunities,” Merlis said. “One of the things that makes him a good spokesperson is a squeaky clean image. If all of a sudden you’re not talking to the police, it certainly raises some questions.”
State officials Tuesday said their investigation into the accident is complete. That leaves only the reports of infidelity, which public relations experts said do not necessarily need to be addressed. While Woods may be too embarrassed to admit having an affair, Keeney said the backlash against celebrities who cheat has proved to be minimal.
“I think everybody has a high degree of forgiveness about that,” he said.