What will Tiger Woods say at his announcement?

The Washington Post's Paul Farhi discusses some of the most famous apologies, or non-apologies, of all time.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; 4:14 PM

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 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 into the room in which Woods will make his statement. He'll take no questions from journalists, ensuring that the event will stick to a script crafted by Woods and his handlers.

Which 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 at best it's a minimal first step, but Wood needs to go further.

"It's not the best strategy," says Paul Levinson, a communication professor at Fordham University in New York. "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 may 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 resurgence ever since. Martha Stewart returned to television after being convicted of securities fraud without appearing contrite at a news conference. Baseball superstars Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte and Mark McGwire have quieted talk about their use of performance-enhancing drugs by offering limited admissions in carefully orchestrated interviews. Former Sen. 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. In the wake of his scandal, a few sponsors (AT&T, the Accenture consulting firm) severed their relationship with him. Others (Nike, Gillette, Gatorade, videogame 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 featuring 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 press 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 has a lot to lose by subjecting himself to open questioning. The questions would most likely be highly embarrassing to Woods 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 Marketer Scouting Report, which assesses athletes' suitability for ads.

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."

Ultimately, Dorfman says, Woods's image will be restored not with words but with deeds and actions. "The best thing he can do is win golf tournaments again," he says.

Which may explain the timing of Woods's effort to restore his good name. Golf's biggest event, the Masters Tournament, starts April 6.

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