Tiger, Tiger, Burning Trust

In case you haven’t heard, the world’s best and most famous golfer has got himself into a bit of a mess.

A sex scandal? To be sure. A public relations debacle? You betcha. But what does it tell us about trust?

The Longer You Wait…

It started back on November 27; that’s 23 days before I’m writing this. That’s a long time in scandal-years to go without comment by the protagonist.

It was December 14, two weeks and change into the story, that Accenture dropped Tiger. That too was a long time, but Accenture was by far the earliest and most definitive of his endorsements to drop him. On the day Accenture dropped him, Nike and Pepsi conspicuously announced their continued endorsement. (Tag Heuer, part of LVMH, hedged its bets, later dropping him).

Woods has been visibly silent to date. Now, he is being given public advice by none other than Snoop Dogg.

Tiger didn’t lack public relations advice from the public. The NY Times on November 28 quoted Mike Paul, founder of MGP Associates, a PR firm:

“My advice to Tiger is pretty simple,” Paul said. “Own it, say it yourself, say it yourself with full conviction and responsibility and get it out of the way.

“You have an opportunity to change rumor and innuendo into truth. Moving past fear and doubt — that’s something they did not do well during the first 24 hours.”

Even a Saturday Night Live parody isn’t the height of bad PR. Yesterday’s NYTimes op-ed by Frank Rich now positions Woods as the poster child for a generation of liars and posers. Heavy stuff.

Predictions are risky, of course, but we probably all agree that Tiger’s delay makes it more difficult, not less, for him to stage a comeback in the court of PR.

The PR Perspective: Tiger Just the Latest to Be Taught the Watergate Lesson

Maybe Tiger was listening to his lawyers. In such cases, criminal defense attorneys often warn their clients not to say anything. Hindsight is 20-20, but it seems that Tiger’s legal issues were nothing compared to his PR issues.

You would think that if the world learned nothing from Watergate, it was that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. And yet, consider the list of public figures that continue to figure they can outrun the capacity for the truth to embarrass them. John Edwards, Bill Clinton, John Ensign, Jim McGreevey, Kobe Bryant, Eliot Spitzer, Bernie Kerik, Newt Gingrich, Jimmy Swaggart, Gary Hart, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, David Letterman, Ted Haggard, Mark Sanford. And on, and on.

From a PR perspective, the answer is clear. Get the truth out, fast. It’s what I teach as Name It and Claim It. It is first and foremost an acknowledgement of reality. It may, or may not, then lead to an apology. Job 1 is stop pretending you’re in charge of reality—get the truth out, because if you don’t, it will most definitely out you.

What Scandals Tell Us About Trust

At the heart of trust is one’s relationship to the Truth. The Trust Equation consists of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. If someone ranks high on the first three and low on the last, we consider them trustworthy. And if someone lies, it calls all four into question.

He who lies is, by definition, not credible. If he lied in a calculated, ongoing way, we have to question his motives—which suggests very high self-orientation. If he lies in a careful, calculated, painstaking manner, then we question his intimacy—we can’t trust what he says even in confidential, seemingly intimate, moments. And if he carefully lies from selfish motives, we certainly don’t find him reliable.

This is damning stuff. But what troubles us most is the implied sense of arrogance. The implication is that the liar believes we are stupid enough to be played for saps. And the longer the delay in telling the truth, the more the continued arrogance. It suggests the liar still believes he can spin us.

Consider Spitzer—damned for his hypocrisy as a do-gooder, then caught. By contrast, his successor Governor Patterson, on his 2nd day, called a press conference to pre-emptively confess all sorts of drug use and sexcapades by himself and his wife. Yawn, said the press.

But it’s more than just truth-telling. We want the hypocrisy dealt with as well. Letterman owned up immediately, but he also apologized. Interestingly, Patterson confessed quickly, but didn’t apologize. Both are in the American tradition. We’re not as Puritanical as Europeans make us out to be; we are a tolerant nation when it comes to all sorts of activities. But what we don’t want is someone who lies about his motives. It’s OK for Barney Frank to be gay; it’s not OK for Larry Craig to torturously insist he isn’t.

What Tiger Can Do

If Tiger were single, it’d be easier for him. What he can’t do, however, is to continue being hypocritical by pretending to be the marrying kind (unless he undergoes some massive conversion). Nor can he continue to pretend he’s in charge of the Truth by insisting on some right to privacy. He gave that up when he received endorsements.

There is one party that came out of this well, I think, and that is Accenture. Tiger’s rectitude was more important to them than to Nike, given their respective businesses. Accenture took decisive action, which is what values-based companies do.

Their silence about their decision, unlike Tiger’s, I take to be principled: preaching ethics in an ethics scandal just highlights your own form of arrogance. Best to be silent and let others formulate their own opinions.

What’s yours?