Can Tiger Woods's 'No questions, please' announcement be enough to heal image?

By Paul Farhi
Friday, February 19, 2010; C01

Is this any way to handle a scandal?

The first stop on the Tiger Woods Rehabilitation Tour kicks off Friday, with the golfer's public reemergence at a long-anticipated, but tightly controlled, media event.

After 12 weeks of self-imposed isolation, Woods will comment on his golfing future and presumably apologize for the extramarital affairs that have engulfed him and his wife, Elin, in a tabloid tsunami since late November.

But just as he does on the course, Woods will call all the shots during his appearance outside Jacksonville, Fla. Reporters from only three wire services have been invited (the Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg), and only one "pool" TV camera will be permitted to shoot Woods's mea culpa. He'll take no questions from journalists, ensuring that the event will stick to a script crafted by Woods and his handlers.

That means a few million TV viewers will likely see only what Woods and his managers want them to see: a contrite superstar, surrounded by friends and supporters, vowing to live up to his former image as a family man.

Will it be enough to restore Woods's pre-tabloid image?

Several communications experts say that at best it's a minimal first step but that Woods needs to go further.

"It's not the best strategy," says Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University. "Avoiding press questions is just going to make the press angrier at him. To some extent, this is a taunt. He's playing fast and loose with the media and the American public."

By restricting his comments now, Woods might be repeating the same mistake he made at the outset of the scandal, when his vague and limited statement on his Web site fueled wild speculation and led to a torrent of media coverage about his alleged paramours, Levinson says.

"This not only doesn't solve the problem, it aggravates it," agrees Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a "crisis" communications firm in Washington. By avoiding questions, Woods is "enhancing the perception that he and his advisers are trying to control the situation. They're still behaving as if they're calling the tune when, in fact, they should be facing the music."

Grabowski uses a political analogy: If President Obama merely made statements and refused to take questions at news conferences, people would demand more. "Golf [fans] and Americans at large want to forgive Tiger," he says. "They want to move on. He won't let them."

Yet the recent history of celebrity scandals suggests that an open-ended apology isn't always necessary. David Letterman confessed on air to sleeping with members of his TV show's staff, took no questions about it and has enjoyed a ratings surge. Martha Stewart returned to television after being convicted of lying about her stock sale without appearing contrite at a news conference. Baseball superstars Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte and Mark McGwire, among others, have quieted talk about their use of performance-enhancing drugs by offering limited admissions in carefully orchestrated interviews. Former senator John Edwards generated some sympathy by admitting infidelity in an interview with ABC, although his credibility was shredded for good when he later recanted his denials about being the father of his mistress's child.

While many have argued that Woods's personal life is none of the public's business, Woods may be aiming for redemption not just in the public's eyes but among current and future sponsors. A few sponsors (AT&T, the Accenture consulting firm) have severed their relationship with him. Others (Nike, Gillette, Gatorade, video-game maker Electronic Arts) stood by but scrubbed the airwaves of any Tiger ads. One measure of Woods's "comeback" will surely be the reappearance of ads starring him.

It's probably no coincidence that one of the invited media organizations, Bloomberg, is primarily a wire service that reports on corporate America.

In a statement, Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg, said: "While Tiger feels that what happened is fundamentally a matter between he and his wife, he also recognizes that he has hurt and let down a lot of other people who were close to him. He also let down his fans. He wants to begin the process of making amends and that's what he's going to discuss."

San Francisco ad man Bob Dorfman says Woods would have a lot to lose if he subjected himself to an open forum. The questions would most likely be highly embarrassing to him and his family, he says. Besides, Woods has never been comfortable baring his soul in public: "He's not the kind of guy who's going to go on 'Oprah,' " said Dorfman, who writes the Sports Marketers' Scouting Report, which assesses athletes' suitability for advertising.

Instead, he thinks Woods should simply offer a blanket statement, like the following: "I did a lot of bad stuff. I was stupid and wrong. I embarrassed my friends, my family and my sponsors. I'm doing what I can to make things right. It won't happen again. End of story."

Woods's words are important, but his behavior will be more telling, says Judy Smith, a crisis specialist who has handled such clients as Michael Vick, Monica Lewinsky and former senator Larry Craig after his arrest in an airport men's room. In addition to living up to his marriage vows, Woods should become the family man he professed to be, she says.

Ultimately, Dorfman says, Woods's image may be helped most by his golf game. "The best thing he can do is win golf tournaments again," he says.

That might explain the timing of Woods's effort to restore his good name. Practice rounds for golf's biggest event, the Masters, start April 6.

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