Lessons in corporate affairs from Tiger Woods and David Letterman


By Jonathan Hemus, Managing director

March 11, 2010 | 3 min read

Mega-rich, mega-famous and a mega-appetite for ladies are three “qualities” which unite US superstars Tiger Woods and David Letterman. And both faced mega-crises when news of their liaisons became public late last year. With news this week that a US television producer has pleaded guilty to attempting to blackmail Letterman over his sexual affairs, and Tiger’s recent public statement, we can begin to see how their crisis communication strategies have had enormous – but very different – impacts on their reputations.

Letterman took immediate control of his situation: he broke the news of his the “creepy things” he had done live on air thereby setting the agenda in terms of timing and messaging. He became the most important and credible source of information about this crisis. He also subtly began to position himself as the victim, culminating in this week’s statement by his would-be blackmailer who apologised to Letterman and his family.

Tiger Woods’ unrivalled golfing abilities mean that he spends very little time in bunkers. But when crisis struck and the eyes of the world and its media were on him, that’s where he headed, and that’s where he stayed for week, after week, after week. In the mean time, every expert, every journalist, every golfer, every Joe Public expressed their views about Tiger to the media, online and in day to day conversation. Their speculation and opinions drove the story, not the man at the centre of it.

When Tiger did speak he did so in such a stage managed way that he failed to significantly improve his credibility. And shutting out most of the world’s media is unlikely to make them your closest allies. The only sympathy that he secured was for his choice of ill-fitting shirt.

The contrast between Letterman and Tiger also shows the value of building relationships -professional relationships – beforehand. Letterman has a longstanding relationship with the US media and popularity with the US public. Tiger was dismissive of the media on the golf tour and therefore had little reputational credit on which to call when he faced a major problem. In fact, the reverse was true: there were many spurned journalists only too happy to stick the knife in.

The final reason why the damage to reputation is so different is because of the values on which their respective reputations were built. Team Tiger’s decision to build the Woods’ brand on clean cut family values meant that a crisis which showed this to be a sham was much more damaging to him than it was to Letterman who had not created his image in the same way. It’s also why Toyota’s product recall crisis which strikes at the core values of its brand – quality and reliability – is so much more damaging than it would be for another automotive brand.

Protecting a reputation in the eye of a major crisis is hugely challenging for organisations as well as individuals. But following the Letterman approach of speedy response, pro-active engagement with stakeholders and empathetic messages is a template that brands in crisis would do well to follow.


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