The Political Strategy Behind Tiger's Comeback

Tiger Woods just announced that he'll end his four-month exile from golf following a sex scandal by playing in the Masters next month. He's hired former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer to assist with his comeback and help repair his public image. Political strategists like Fleischer are becoming more prominent in business, sports, and entertainment. So how do they help someone like Tiger recover from a sex scandal? For insight into what Tiger and Ari are plotting, I spoke with Chris Lehane, a political strategist in the Clinton-Gore administration who now provides strategic advice to corporate, entertainment, political and sports clients as a partner in the firm of Fabiani & Lehane.

If you look at the landscape in politics, business, entertainment, and sports over the last 20 or 30 years there's been a similar dynamic. You've had an explosion of media outlets. Information now travels at hyper speeds. The public has both a thirst for it, and particularly with social networking, they can now engage and participate with newsgathering and discussion. All that means there's a higher premium than ever before on making sure you protect the brand. In politics, especially after Watergate, new standards came into play, and success became a question not of whether you were going to face a crisis, but how you responded when you did face a crisis. The politicians who have been successful at the highest level are those who have been been able to manage their way through a crisis and go on and get reelected. That's now becoming true in other areas, like sports.

-Is a sex scandal a sex scandal, regardless of whether it's the political world or the sports world?

Yes, political, entertainment, sports and business all ultimately go to the brand. I think Tiger could have hired any number of folks in the political world. And I think it makes a lot of sense--I'm not unbiased here, I represent sports and entertainment figures--but it does make sense to look for people who come out of politics to help you in these situations.

-Well, then you'd think he'd have hired Mike McCurry. One thing you can say for Bush is he never got embroiled in a sex scandal!

No, he only made up the underlying facts to take the country to war. In this case, obviously, you're dealing with sex. But I think all these crises have a lot of the same underlying dynamics.

-I thought Tiger's initial response rivaled Cheney's face-shooting episode for its ham-handedness. How has Tiger has handled the crisis so far? And if you're Ari Fleischer, how do you approach this?

When you get in this late in the game, the hole has already been dug pretty deeply. The first thing is to tell Tiger to stop backing up the steam shovel and digging his hole even deeper. Thus far in the process virtually everything he's done has served to make a deep hole even deeper. The Hippocratic Oath of politics is, "First do no harm." The next thing is to look for the "pivot moment," that event, that moment in time where you effectively address the issue, do it in a way that allows you to put it behind you, and move on. Third is recognizing--and in Tiger's situation this is going to be very hard to deal with--that your credibility is your single most important asset, and you have to protect it at all costs. Fourth, particularly when you're an athlete like Tiger, ultimately, you have to focus on performing on the field. The American people are very forgiving. They'll forget about events if you perform. People want to be entertained, see great performances, and you can recover so long as you do the first three things.

-Seems to me Tiger's coming up short on that front.

Tiger, Toyota and Mark Sanford all seem to have worked off of the same flawed playbook. They put out disingenuous answers initially, then put out additional disingenuous answers, then did a public event that did not put the issue to rest. I thought the press conference he gave did not produce that pivot moment. Eventually, he's going to come out in public and people are going to ask him the 101 questions everyone wants him to answer. So he still has to go through that process where he effectively pops the balloon and is able to move on. Look at someone like Kobe Bryant, who faced a much more challenging situation--not just the sex issue but the legal situation, which could have landed him in jail. He was constrained by what he could say and do publicly. But he prevailed on the legal front and then became one of the best basketball players in the world. Today, a lot of people don't remember what happened, or if they do, they've put it behind them. Kobe will never get back to where he was, and neither will Tiger, because the brand is so degraded. But Kobe has made it most of the way back.

-So what should Ari Fleischer's strategy memo to Tiger look like?

There's a fairly standard playbook. Either a press conference and take some questions, or more appropriately for him, you pick a respected reporter who's going to give you a fair shake and do an exclusive on the air interview.

-Don a pastel sweater like Alex Rodriguez and call Peter Gammons? Or does it have to be a tearful confession on Oprah?

You could do either version. I think at this point, you do a sit-down with a respected journalist, take the hard questions and move on. A-Rod did it the right way. This was a hard issue, but he dealt with it, was the MVP of World Series, and by that point very few people remembered or cared about the steroids. Without condoning what he did, I think he handled his situation in a smart way.

-What about the supportive spouse? That seems mandatory for all non-South Carolinian politicians. Does Elin have to stoically appear by Tiger's side for him to "recover"?

-At some level yes, because that's all part of the narrative. People are going to be waiting for the spousal showing. When sex is involved you have to, because it goes directly to the relationship with your wife. People are going to want to know if she's standing by your side or not, that's part of the narrative. One of the reasons why you have the spouse out there--in addition to the spouse always being your best validator--is because you also want to make sure that issue gets addressed. To execute the pivot, you apologize, you take full responsibility, you provide the context for what happened, you offer no excuses, you do not attack the press, you have family members there, and if it's a sex issue you have your spouse there, you take the questions, and from that point on you say, "We've answered these questions, I made a terrible mistake, but I'm now focused on playing golf."

-Everyone from Barbara Walters to Katie Couric to Oprah must be slavering to land this interview. If you're advising Tiger, who do you pick?

I would pick Bob Costas. He's a Peter Gammons-like figure in the sports world. He's taken seriously. He'll give a real interview, and the rest of the press corp will respect it. But you always have the Oprah option.

-Is Tiger's audience for this interview the male-dominated sports world or is it the media more broadly?

He's a transcendent figure. He was always broader than that. The reason why he was bigger than golf was that he's an iconic figure who crosses over beyond his sport. But for the purposes of this official pivot, you don't need to find somebody who's going to appeal to a huge audience--although by definition it will be, because this interview will get enormous coverage--but what you're looking for is someone who will be respected and taken seriously. Any of those folks would serve the strategic purpose of dealing with it in a way that it allows you to put it behind you.

-Tiger's life seemed to really nosedive when the tabloids got involved. I'll bet John Edwards sympathizes. Does that add to the degree of difficulty? How do you handle them?

Yes. You're in an ecology with 500-plus media outlets, and the way to think of the tabloids is like the small wheels in a clock turning the bigger wheels in the clock. The tabloids are one of the wheels that turn the whole media circus. When you're a high-profile athlete, politician, or entertainer, this is the type of issue that the tabloids know drives online coverage and sales. The quicker you stop throwing fuel on the fire, the quicker you slow down those wheels.

-That seems true of politicians and pro athletes alike. In the end, it's about their approval rating. Tiger seems one step away from hawking acne medicine with Jessica Simpson. If he wants to get back to Gillette and Gatorade, doesn't he have to change that?

Yes, that's why I think Kobe is a good example. The Kobe approval ratings stem from the fact that the guy performed so well on the court and did not repeat the mistake, which is obviously an important component of recovery. Kobe had a smart strategy. He engaged with the press, did a lot of philanthropic and charitable activities, and starred on the U.S. Olympic team that took back the gold. He was enormously accessible to the press throughout that process. That's a pretty good roadmap back for an athlete. One of the reasons Bill Clinton survived and moved on was because he had such a high job-approval rating. The American people thought he was doing a pretty good job.

-Tiger just announced his big return at the Masters. Is that analogous to Election Day for a politician?

If I'm Tiger, since I have not effectively executed that pivot yet, then yes, that is presumably going to be the moment. I assume there is going to be a strategic rollout that will include some type of an interview where you take questions that occurs some time before the actual event, which allows you to say at the Masters, "I've answered those questions. I'm focused on playing golf now." That is the moment to begin to pivot on this entire issue. Then you go out and you play golf. But you also have to recognize, you're never going to get back to where you were, and to the extent you do come back, it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be a multi-year effort.

-Last question: Who'd be harder to rehabilitate from a public relations standpoint: Tiger Woods or Eric Massa?

There will be a reservoir of goodwill for Tiger. He's still a preternaturally talented athlete who just plays at a level beyond what people have ever seen. I think he'll go out and once again perform. Assuming he takes the steps we've talked about, that will go a long way toward his comeback. I think Massa is in a deep, dark unspinnable place.

-Why does a famous athlete hire a political consultant like Ari Fleischer?