Public Scandal and PR

Media consumers love to watch a star fall.  They eat up the mistakes of celebrities and sports professionals, and it can easily spiral out of control, unless there is a solid public relations crisis management campaign in place.  Lately, this has been especially true of sports figures who have faced public disdain for poor behavior.  The key to success in a reputation crisis is public relations.  Let’s look at two cases of sports figures who have faced public scandal.

Lance Armstrong

While investigators are delving into accusations of drug use, Lance Armstrong has stayed in the spotlight.  Other than a world champion biker, Armstrong is best known for his fight against testicular cancer and subsequent charity events to engage people in the cause.

The Livestrong founder has kept to his schedule of charity events, bike rides, speeches and endorsements.  According to this AP article, Armstrong is doing “anything but hiding.”  This is exactly the right approach to such a crisis.  He is managing to limit the damage done, and to preserve his reputation with the public.

Even in the midst of the investigation, Armstrong stayed in the public eye, constantly updating his nearly three million Twitter followers, and appearing at all of his charity events.

His sponsors have kept with him throughout the ordeal — he has yet to be dropped by Nike, RadioShack or 24-hour Fitness.  This is mainly because he has stayed in the public eye, and hasn’t hidden like other athletes who are facing a crisis.  Because of this, his reputation is solid as a cancer survivor and activist.  Even if found guilty, his reputation will not endure the same sort of damage as it would have if he had hidden.  He has done everything he should have done in the face of a controversy.

Tiger Woods

Anyone who pays attention has heard of Tiger Woods and his alleged indiscretions. Everyone has formed their own opinion — negative or positive — in regard to his reputation.

Regardless of what you think of his athletic abilities or his moral code, it is obvious that Tiger Woods  and his advisers mishandled his public relations crisis.  Unlike Armstrong, Woods hid.  He did not practice reputation management, he instead withdrew, perhaps waiting for it all to blow over.

According to this Technorati article,  there are five things Woods could have done to preserve his reputation in the face of the crisis.

  1. As soon as the car accident story broke, his public relations team should have prepared a statement that “scratched the surface as it related to the seriousness of the situation.”  They had to have been aware that the truth would come out soon, and they should have been proactive.
  2. He should have apologized to his wife publicly, with the whole truth, for all to see his remorse.
  3. He should have talked to the police immediately and told the media that he did so.
  4. He should have reached out to his endorsement partners to inform them of the seriousness of the situation.
  5. He should have set up an interview with a prominent figure such as Oprah or Barbara Walters to discuss the situation and his deep remorse.

Instead, Woods hid from the media and let them take control of the story.  As a result of his lack of a crisis management plan, he was dropped as an endorser, lost his wife and his reputation suffered a tremendous blow.  He did not come out on top, but hopefully did come out wiser, with a better grasp on the importance of public relations.

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8 Responses to Public Scandal and PR

  1. cbaumgar says:

    I agree that there is a major difference between the way Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods handled their reputation crises. Armstrong handled it well in that he went public with his situation and confronted it. Woods let rumor after rumor spread without a word. I think it is an important lesson for PR professionals to learn that reputation is vital in the public arena. Public figures must take control of situations as soon as they surface and be prepared 24/7. It is important to retain trust by addressing problems right away and remaining in the public eye at all times. I really like the five points you posted from the article. I think it really sums up the steps of crisis handling.

  2. bajohn10 says:

    I agree that Lance Armstrong and Tiger Wood are opposites in terms of how they have handled tough career challenges. I too like how Armstrong has stayed in the public eye and has tried to do good with his position and power. One might argue though, that he now has a longer fall if found guilty. At times, I believe that the public’s reaction can be unexpected. While they might support him, I could also see them being quite disappointed. He is a role model and an inspiration, and for someone like that to lie is not taken lightly. For Armstrong’s sake, I hope that all of this media attention ends well for him.

  3. clangefe says:

    While I think it’s slightly ridiculous how much people care about some celebrity’s personal lives, I definitely agree that it really is all about the PR and how they handle the crisis.

    I think addressing the issue and just being honest is the best route. It’s great that Lance Armstrong stayed in the public eye and in touch with his fans. The fact that Tiger Woods only addressed his situation with a “private,”,rehearsed press conference really didn’t help his image.

    A PR plan really can make or break a star in the midst of a crisis and it’s definitely important to be prepared and to keep your audience informed.

  4. lrstarr says:

    I agree. In crisis, responsiveness is key. However, do keep in mind the nature of both situations. One is far more extreme and unusual than the other. Sports stars’ drug use is a constant headline. Although I commend Lance for his responsiveness and believe his chosen behavior is a model in celebrity crisis management, I can understand the ridiculousness of Tiger’s response (of lack thereof). Undeniably, Tiger’s reputation is in ruins, but the situation was so bizarre that I truly feel that, had he adhered to the above suggestions, his reputation would still be severely damaged. In part, this has to do with the mistresses’ fame-seeking intentions and the resulting domino effect. With those women in the media forefront, was there really a chance for neat and clean crisis management?

    • alervin says:

      Irstarr, I actually considered the two different circumstances when posting this blog, but these two cases were the two most clear-cut cases of effectively handling, and mishandling a PR crisis that I found.

      I think Tiger’s reputation would still have been damaged if he had followed these suggestions, but not to the extreme that it is now. People may have forgiven him, or admired his honesty. We can’t say what would happen if he had a solid crisis plan in place because he failed in that aspect.

  5. alervin says:

    BaJohn10 — interesting that you said that it might be a longer fall if found guilty. Although I do see that this could be the case, will people care more about his drug use allegations or will they see the man who donates so much time and money to charity? I think that all that he has done has cushioned the fall than created a longer fall. I feel this way because unlike so many athletes, his reputation is built on him as a cancer survivor and active in charity events while other athletes have built their reputations on being athletes alone.

  6. jhickam says:

    While I do agree that Woods could have handled the situation better, I would hope that anyone found cheating on their wife, the way he did on his, would not be able to walk away with a glowing reputation. Tiger Woods, prior to this scandal, had made a name for himself in the sports industry as the “good guy.” He seemed to be a grounded family man despite his fame –- that is how his public relations team painted him. It was all a lie. The only thing Woods could have done to save that image would have been to not cheat in the first place. But, now that he has, the best way to regain the trust of his fans would have been to follow the steps in the Technorati article.

    Also, the Lance Armstrong case is different than Tiger Wood’s case. Armstrong has not been convicted of anything, nor has he confirmed his drug use. Instead, he has denied it adamantly. Also, there has been no evidence of his drug use besides hearsay, as far as I could find. And while the story has been reported in national news like The New York Times and by the Associated Press, the media don’t have much to go on. I doubt if this scandal were confirmed -– like it was in the Tiger Woods case – Armstrong would avoid damage to his reputation. But until there is confirmation, Armstrong can continue to be the cancer-surviving activist the public loves.

    • alervin says:

      I chose these two cases because they are great examples of effective and ineffective crisis management. It is true that we know Tiger is guilty, and Armstrong has not been proven so- but the way that each handled the case is what is key. No matter what the circumstance is, hiding from the public when you are a public figure is the wrong move.

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