At Least One Crisis Manager Thinks Tiger Woods Was Right to Respond to Dan Jenkinsby
When Tiger Woods joined the litany of celebrity athletes with a byline and an honorific in Derek Jeter’s new online publishing venture the Player’s Tribune last week, he used the direct-to-fans platform in a novel way: to fire back at a critic. Woods responded to an imaginary interview with him by veteran writer Dan Jenkins in the latest Golf Digest, calling the parody “a grudge-fueled piece of character assassination.”
While the fast-growing genre of first-person jock media is loaded with self-promotion, sentimentality, and peeks at the strangeness of fame, Tiger used it for anger. The instant response—at least among journalists, whose sympathies in the matter are obviously tilted—was that he’d made a mistake:
Woods, in this line of thinking, had ignored the Streisand Effect, whereby protesting negative attention only amplifies it. The standard advice, voiced here by Reputation.com founder Michael Fertik is: “If someone attacks you online, it’s almost always best to ignore it. You only want to respond if the material is very visible and demonstrably false.”
This critique made sense to me, but then I am a journalist and not a world famous athlete in the crosshairs. So I contacted the Levick crisis management firm in Washington, D.C., to get a professional opinion. To my surprise, Levick Vice President Lanny Davis called to offer a defense of Woods. Davis knows from public attacks. As special counsel to President Clinton, he was on the front lines of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. According to his Levick bio, he has since advised Martha Stewart, Dan Snyder, and Charlie Rangel, among others. Whatever the merits of his work with those clients, Davis has seen worse than parody interviews.
Here, lightly edited, is our conversation on the Woods-Jenkins dust-up:
IB: What did you think of Woods’s piece?
LD: As a crisis management proposition, Tiger Woods did the right thing. He has the right to be outraged and he has a right to express the outrage. Anyone who suggests that he ought to stay silent in the face of something that is this slimy, not-funny, and in bad taste ought to put themselves into his shoes. You ought to put yourself into his skin and look at the world through his eyes. You are the subject of this kind of slime. It isn’t even close to being funny. It’s not Jon Stewart. It’s not Colbert. I would say to my client, “Do you consider this just bad humor or do you consider this a personal attack disguised as humor?” Anybody who answers that question by putting himself into Tiger Woods’s shoes would have to say this is vicious disguised as humor. And therefore he did the right thing.
IB: On a pure strategy level, though, many people read the Golf Digest piece who would not have otherwise.
LD: Yes. In a crisis manager’s life, most lawyers advising clients will say, “Don’t comment because it’s in an obscure place. No one is going to read it. You are just bringing more attention to it.” That is the most classic, repeated statement by people who don’t understand life on the Internet and who have never been in the middle of a slimy story about themselves. When you are Tiger Woods, nothing is obscure. It goes viral. The only way to beat a viral, slimy piece like this—I don’t care where it’s published—is to speak the truth and get in the way of the Google misinformation echo chamber. You’ve got to get in the way and intercept it, so that when this is Googled, it won’t appear forever without Tiger Woods being in the middle of the echo chamber.
IB: If you Google it now, there is the original piece, there is Tiger Woods getting his perspective, and then there are dozens and dozens of people piling into the story, a lot of it negative toward Tiger.
LD: If you are on the receiving end of something this vicious, you just want your version of events in the mix. Whether it causes more piling on or not isn’t really that relevant. You just want to get your say. And if it stirs up another thousand people to pile on, what’s the difference between being hurt and being hurt more? You’re right, it’s just arousing more people to pile on, but the alternative is worse. The alternative is to be silent. When I left the White House working for President Clinton, I wrote a book about my experiences in dealing with crises. I tried to summarize the lessons that I learned. The answer: Tell it early. Tell it all. Tell it yourself.