Despite two weeks of abject public humiliation in blogs and the tabloid press, a leading sports image-maker says redemption for Tiger Woods may be just one “good cry on Oprah” away.
The blow to Mr. Woods’ image from a bizarre auto accident and a rash of purported infidelities should not be a career-ender for golf’s biggest star, said Todd Wasserman, editor of Brandweek magazine in New York. Mr. Wasserman’s marketing sources think that if Mr. Woods handles it well from here, he can come back stronger than ever.
“Everyone we’ve talked to says that he’s not finished and that this is merely a bump in the road,” Mr. Wasserman told The Washington Times. “There are two main reasons: He didn’t break any laws. He never held himself up as a paragon of marital fidelity. He’s a fairly young athlete and people don’t expect him to be Tom Hanks.
“We’ve all seen how celebrities have [messed] up and then appeared months later on the front page of People or on Oprah to give their public mea culpa. I think the public is quick to forgive because they themselves feel a bit dirty for have enjoyed the star’s downfall as much as they did and to have reveled in all the sordid details. Everyone feels cleansed by a good cry on Oprah.”
Although some argue that Mr. Woods remains rich and successful no matter his alleged proclivities - his net worth is estimated at more than a half-billion dollars - others wonder what kind of image rehab the world’s most famous athlete will need to rebound from sleazy revelations that continue to drive the celebrity news cycle each day.
For some observers, Mr. Woods’ silence on a story that grow stranger by the day just adds fuel to a fire that could have been squelched had he and his handlers taken control of his message early on. Knowing that his alleged infidelities stretched into double digits and letting them trickle out one by one on Web sites like TMZ.com, has created a public relations nightmare for Mr. Woods that marketing specialists say could easily have been avoided.
Baseball’s recent steroids scandals have shown that contrition and good on-field performance can allow a scarred athlete to continue his career relatively unfettered. After Yankees shortstop Alex Rodriguez was exposed as a steroid user in a book last winter, he held a news conference during spring training and admitted past use of banned substances. By the fall, the issue of steroids barely came up as he played an integral part in the Yankees’ run to the World Series title.
Teammate Andy Pettitte last year admitted to using human growth hormone earlier in his career but won the clinching Game 6 for the Yankees in November and this week agreed on a new one-year contract worth more than $11 million.
Other baseball players who have been less forthcoming about suspected steroid use have become pariahs. Former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who was tied to steroid use during the investigation into the now-defunct Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, has denied using steroids and has been unable to land a contract, despite a willingness to play.
Former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire, who famously deflected questions about whether he had used steroids during a congressional hearing in 2005, fell well short of election to baseball’s Hall of Fame last year despite hitting 583 career home runs.
Public relations specialists said there are some crimes, such as murder and domestic violence, that are close to unforgivable. But over time, nearly anyone can restore his or her image.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant lost most of his corporate sponsors after he was accused of sexual assault by a Colorado hotel employee in 2003. But he bounced back to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2008 and led the Lakers to the NBA title last season. His jersey is now the top seller among all NBA players.
“Time is really a great healer in more ways than one,” said Daniel Keeney, president of DPK Public Relations. “If a person has done something wrong, go ahead and get your story out. It will be very painful for a short time, but it will go away.”
Actors Rob Lowe and Hugh Grant, now quietly successful, also were raked over the tabloid coals for sexual flings that sent gossip rag interest through the roof. Mr. Lowe, now the star of TV’s “Brothers & Sisters,” but once a Brat Pack heartthrob of the ‘80s, was caught on videotape in 1988 with two women, one of whom was 16.
Mr. Grant, then dating long-term flame and supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, was caught by police having oral sex with a prostitute on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in 1995. He later took his lumps with chat show host Jay Leno, who asked to great applause from his “Tonight Show” audience: “What the hell were you thinking?”
Replied Mr. Grant, who apologized repeatedly for his foible: “I did a bad thing.”
Mr. Woods would have done better to take a page from another high-profile celebrity, Mr. Wasserman said.
“I think celebs who find themselves in similar straits should follow the example of David Letterman, who was proactive about a similar situation,” Mr. Wasserman said. “People may be repelled by what Letterman admitted, but I think most people also respect him for stepping up and telling his fans the truth.”
Mr. Letterman said in October that he had affairs with staff members.
Mr. Woods has released just one public statement through his representatives since crashing his black Cadillac Escalade into a tree and fire hydrant in the middle of the night. Some speculate he was fleeing his golf-club wielding spouse, Elin, who was attending him when paramedics arrived.
During the subsequent media story, questions have arisen about whether he had been drinking or taking medications. That is not to mention the, at last count, 11 women with whom he has been linked since his Nov. 27 accident.
“I think any P.R. pro worth his salt would advise Tiger to lie low for a few months at least,” argued Mr. Wasserman “He obviously handled the situation very poorly so far.”
Celebrity publicist and branding expert Holly Gleason, however, says it would be big mistake to believe it will go away that easily, particularly because the women keep coming out of the woodwork, some hiring attorneys to negotiate a settlement or lucrative public deal.
“The days of no comment are over. That is now a blank check for the blogosphere to blow up any way they see fit,” Ms. Gleason said.