Why PR Advice Is The Last Thing Tiger Woods Needs

The Tiger Woods soap opera isn’t just a gift to the tabloid press. It’s been a championship season for PR and crisis management advice. Even before the latest statement hit the Web, communications experts were scrambling to rehash the criticisms of last November and offer another round of self-serving counsel about what Woods should do to get his reputation out of the rough. Another day, another lesson in “apology PR.”

But the recent foray into the Woods bothered me, and not just for the typical reasons. It wasn’t the awkward, makeshift setup of his statement.  Or the image of his mother in the front row, though that was strange, and, in my opinion, unnecessary. Or, even the fact that, at times, his delivery reminded me of a hostage video.

Actually, I think it’s apology fatigue. And maybe distaste for the advice industry that’s so eager to milk the situation. In the month of February alone, we’ve dissected the contrition of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, singer John Mayer, and, now, again, Tiger Woods. And, it’s not just professionals who take shots. It’s everybody. Everyone’s a PR expert, and, by now, a cynic. CNN reported an analysis of Twitter updates before the briefing that showed 20% of tweets dismissing it as “all PR” while 18% called it “overhyped.” If those numbers seem low, it’s only because the rest were slamming Woods with harsher phrases.

But, no matter how you feel about Tiger Woods, it seems that, even if heartfelt or skillfully delivered, apologies are now seen as pro forma PR. As the pundits would have it, there’s a standard rulebook and a checklist, and once you’re done, you can work your way back into the public’s good graces. It’s just business, right?

Wrong. Rebuilding a reputation is more complicated than going through the media motions. It’s not about a template, or a checklist, or a one-size-fits-all approach. And, it goes beyond public relations.

In fact, the last thing Tiger Woods needs right now is great PR. The masterfully crafted image of him as a model of personal discipline and dedicated family man is part of what got him into this mess in the first place. It backfired when the perception clashed so utterly with reality.

So, I’m going to hold back on more advice for Woods. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t admire how his situation has been handled. But, at this point, I agree with what a colleague expressed about Woods last December.  “I used to think he had a PR problem,” he said. “Now, I think he has a life problem.”

Smith vs. Southwest: Who Wins The PR Skirmish?

It’s tough to build a good reputation as an airline these days. As musician Dave Carroll reminded us, you don’t even need to be 100% right to gain the upper hand to take on the guys who fly. Mostly, you need to be creative and funny, because airlines carry a lot of baggage when it comes to customer service and brand reputation. And it helps to have a big megaphone.

Well, the industry – symbolized by this month’s poster child, Southwest Airlines – may have met its match in Hollywood biggie Kevin Smith. Southwest hit some heavy PR weather when it took on Smith, who despite his indie creds, has a huge Twitter following and isn’t shy about throwing his weight around. His “tweak-out” was heard around the world. Some have called it “Fat-gate.”

Smith was asked to leave a Southwest flight after he was deemed too much of a, um, wide-body to fit into his seat. But, Smith, who tweeted his outrage in colorful language familiar to anyone who saw “Clerks” or “Chasing Amy,” insists he passed the “armrest test,” and wasn’t too fat to fly. Smith also lashed out at the airline for waiting until he was seated, with bags stowed, before he was bounced.

Being no social media novice, Southwest responded quickly to the gathering PR storm, contacting Smith on Twitter and eventually by telephone at his home. As the latest example of corporate apology communications, its handling of the incident showed social savvy, although it left some PR-watchers up in the air over mixed messages.

After the story blew up, Southwest at first stayed the course, politely but firmly citing its “passengers of size policy” and the comfort and safety of all who fly. Then, after speaking directly with Smith (and possibly also learning that he was invited onto the Larry King show to discuss the snafu), a Southwest rep offered a more heartfelt – if halfway – apology on its blog.

There’s something for everyone

But, here’s the thing about the Smith snafu. In my view, everybody wins a little here. First, the dustup received an extraordinary amount of attention, without a single live interview with Smith himself. Maybe it was just the holiday weekend, typically a slow news time. But, it says something about the power and weight of social media, and its influence with mainstream press.

Though Southwest took some heat, its quick response, coupled with a witty blog post and subsequent apology, makes it look in touch and engaged, as well as caring about its passengers (at least, the bulk of them) and quick to address a plus-sized PR problem.

As for Smith, some have claimed the whole thing was a publicity stunt for his upcoming film. I doubt it, particularly when the “passenger of size” policy is so randomly enforced (which is one of the problems here.) But, I’d be surprised if it didn’t boost awareness of Smith’s next project. And, given Smith’s challenge that if Southwest flies its airline seat to New York, he’ll prove he’s fit to fly by sitting in it, live, on The Daily Show, he’s not done yet.

Customer service and PR overlap, for better and worse

But, besides raising industry consciousness about sensitivity and consistency, the best thing about the Smith rampage – as expressed in 140-character updates – may be what it does for customer service. The convergence of customer service and brand public relations has real implications for both PR professionals and for how companies handle customer complaints. Any company who doesn’t realize this is risking its reputation.

Humor helps

The final benefit of the skirmish is its entertainment value. Most of his tweets can’t be repeated here, but, as some have claimed, they could be the best thing he’s written in years. After blasting the airline as “sizeist” and “rude” but finally landing, Smith tweeted,

“Hey @SouthwestAir! I’ve landed in Burbank. Don’t worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”

But, in the end, this particular Smith drama is also self-limiting in its power to inflict brand damage, for the same reason it’s interesting. I mean, who isn’t mad at the airlines? As one commenter put it,

“Kevin, you know who has an airline nightmare story? Everyone. Now shut up. “

Did Amp Turn Up The Volume With #pepsifail?

As I’ve noted previously, good public relations sometimes means having to say you’re sorry. “Apology communications” is a PR buzzword these days. But, when is an apology something else altogether? (Hint: When it involves 18-year-old dudes, maybe?)

What got me wondering was the backlash to the Amp energy drink campaign. Of course, I’m talking about the now-infamous iPhone app created for the drink’s young, male customers. Amp Up Before You Score packs some punchy pickup lines for guys who want to “get lucky” with different female “types,” from “military chick” to “married.” You have to admire the breadth…and the artwork. All told, it pulls background and, um, date suggestions for 24 different types of women. If you’ve got a “treehugger” in your sights, for example, it offers a carbon footprint calculation and serves up vegan restaurant recommendations.

Kind of clever, but in this case, crude sexual references and sexist stereotypes unleashed a torrent of outrage. After Twitter users and others poured on the protest, an apology was posted on the brand’s account at @AMPwhatsnext. It read, “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback. #pepsifail

I’m not actually offended by – or even terribly interested in – the app itself. Tasteless? Sure. Sophomoric? Yep. But, that’s the Amp demographic. Not exactly the Junior League. The hair-trigger brand response is something else, though. It seems to have added fuel to the online firestorm, for a few reasons.

First of all, the apologetic tweet is pretty tepid. Also, it’s odd that Amp’s Facebook feed actually defends the app. Where’s the consistency here? And since there’s been no offer to pull “Amp Up,” the mea culpa seems inauthentic, or at least half-hearted. As a mashable.com commenter put it, “It’s not a full apology when you use the word “if,” blame the offended for being offended, and continue the activity for which you are apologizing.”

She has a point. What’s harder to swallow is how and why the brand seemed to invite negative feedback. Presumably the #pepsifail hashtag enabled Amp to monitor the Twitter users most engaged in the debate. But, using it was like injecting a double shot of caffeine (or guarana?) into the comment stream. And why did the company choose to throw brand Pepsi under the social media bus? Why not try to use #ampfail? Given the size of the Pepsi portfolio, do they really want to drag in the mass-market mother ship?

Beyond the blurring of brands, I can’t tell if the communications staff at Pepsi are over-identifying with their Amp demographic…or if they’re truly ambivalent about the situation. Or – and this actually seems the most likely to me – maybe they’re interested in amping up the volume, even if it’s negative to us non-hipsters. My take on the apology strategy is that it just may be true to the drink’s cool-hunting, hypersocialized brand character. After all, the reactions of people like me (a 40+ professional mom) or an indignant female blogosphere don’t affect sales in the least. In fact, they just might help promote an edgy, in-your-face sensibility. And ignoring a flood of outrage among marketing types is in itself a kind of anti-marketing position.

I could be overthinking this, but there’s no question that Amp has caught a tremendous buzz from the social media fireworks. In a crowded, buzz-driven category, a shot of energy isn’t a bad thing. And considering the prize here – the ever-elusive young male – the online equivalent of a slapdash, muttered, self-contradictory apology just might be the most authentic piece of all.

Update: On Oct. 22, Pepsi announced it would discontinue the “Amp Up” app. Here’s the story.