Ethics Thought Leadership

Off-Course, Request for “Quiet Please!” Hurts Tiger Woods

In professional tournament play, Tiger Woods is well-known for insisting on silence during his pre-shot routine and swing. He dresses down disturbers of the peace by yelling “not in my swing!” or by dispatching his caddie, Steve Edwards, to enforce a somnolent decibel level on the course.

Perhaps it’s to be expected, then, that Woods hoped the consideration routinely given to Tiger the golfer would likewise be extended to Tiger the husband, father and tax payer.  But one of the world’s richest and most-marketable athletes hoping for personal privacy is a bit like a weekend duffer hoping for a hole in one: Odds are, it’s not going to happen.

After initially declining to speak with the police, Woods was expected on Sunday to disclose the details of his Friday morning car crash to the Florida Highway Patrol. But when Sunday dawned, Woods changed his mind, sniffing — in any case — that such an interview would be both “voluntary and optional.”

Instead, Woods issued a statement via his Web site, that was remarkable as much for what it didn’t say, as for what it actually said.

“This situation is my fault, and it’s obviously embarrassing to my family and me … [but] this is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity I would also ask for some understanding that my family and I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be.”

For all the embarrassing details that Woods’ actions conceal in the short term, his behavior could prove damaging to his pristine reputation and, in turn, his earning potential over the long term.

His vague statement, for example, allows the speculation, opinion, innuendo and, perhaps, outright lies to go unchallenged. And by putting off a police interview, he appears to be hiding the facts, ducking a larger measure of accountability and delaying an explanation in hope the story will fade into obscurity.

With little to distinguish between Tiger the man and Tiger the brand, there’s also a business case to be made for Woods to aggressively manage his reputation. The Reputation Institute has calculated, based on a 14-year review of the companies in the Fortune “Most Admired” survey, that a 5 percent gain in reputation equates to a 3 percent increase in market value.

What does this mean for someone of Woods’ stature? Forbes magazine reported that Woods this year became the first billion-dollar athlete, taking into account his earnings from endorsement money, tournament winnings, appearance fees and other income sources since he turned pro in the mid ‘90s. If information surfaces showing Woods was deceitful or hiding something exceedingly negative, it’s conceivable that his market value could take a $30 to $60 million hit.

Woods’ durable reputation, however, makes it easier for him to assert a right to privacy and turn away from the media. As much as the First Amendment — the bedrock of our profession — guarantees an individual’s right to speak, it also ensures his or her right not to speak. Woods is fortunate to be in a position where he can remain mum, but he must realize that for every action, there is an equal and, at times, costly opposite reaction.

As Arthur W. Page, a proponent of “do it by action” noted, performance is the determinant of reputation. He also reminded us that “all business in a democratic country begins with public permission and exists by public approval.” Woods is no different in this regard.

With his vast appeal and a public (not to mention a legion of golf fans) ready and willing to forgive and forget, Woods should find preserving his reputation as easy as making a three-foot putt. Explain yourself with certainty and sincerity, take responsibility, apologize and get on with your life.

There are no mulligans in professional golf, but Tiger Woods has a rare opportunity for one in life.

Michael G. Cherenson is 2009 Chair and CEO of PRSA. For more of Cherenson’s commentary on Tiger Woods, please visit PRSA in the News, in the PRSA online newsroom.

3 Comments

  • The Tiger enterprise, like all companies today, is guilty until proven innocent. The vacuum created by Tiger’s silence is being filled by both legitimate critics and, happily, by those who trade in gossip and negativity.

  • The gossip and wanton (though at times hysterical) speculation are unfortunate. However, as the commenter above me pointed out – that’s the effect of prolonged silence.

    (Evasive statements don’t count, obviously.)

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