There is a new price tag for failure, approximately $21.5 billion.
That's the amount financial analysts say the Tiger Woods PR debacle has cost the companies who had hired Tiger as a spokesperson. The personal loss of credibility goes far beyond affecting the $100 million man, and has substantially affected the value of the companies who depended on his image to sell their products and services.
In a vacuum, his misstep has caused a ripple effect that is costing jobs and may actually wind up closing companies. The terror for firms large and small is that it's nigh impossible to predict when a crisis is going to happen – but that doesn't mean it's impossible to prepare for it.
Crisis public relations is more than just the practice of damage control. In fact, it is one part prevention and one part containment, aimed at curtailing or even eliminating the damage from a public relations crisis. The problem with most companies is that they don't typically see crisis PR as a proactive measure, and they simply react when a crisis strikes.
The first way to protect yourself against a PR disaster taking the rug out from under your company's feet is to have a plan in place, just like OSHA requires you to have an evacuation plan in case your office catches on fire. Companies need to have a written procedure to be executed either in-house or by their PR agency to immediately contain and control a PR crisis.
The core of this plan should be a two-fold approach of silence, and then disclosure. When a PR crisis strikes, it's important to be sure that no one in your company speaks to the media immediately, at least not without a plan or a statement approved by management. Second, management needs to assess the damage of the story, and prepare not only a written response, but offer a spokesperson to speak to the press. A perfect example of this occurred in the 1980s in Tampa Bay. One evening, not too long after the Los Angeles race riots, a white sheriff's deputy shot and killed a black teenager during a robbery investigation. The suspect wielded what looked like a gun in the darkness and pointed it at the deputy, prompting the deputy to fire on the suspect. After the suspect was down, it was discovered what the deputy thought was a gun was a piece of wood carved out to look like a gun.
This was a potentially explosive story. A banner front-page headline could have touched off local riots and raised tensions in the community to the boiling point.
From the circumstances involved, it was what the police community calls "a righteous shoot," justified from the thread of events of the evening. Police are permitted to fire on suspects when they believe their safety or the safety of others is in imminent peril. The suspect, believed to have a weapon, had both motive and opportunity to fire and had the "weapon" aimed at the deputy. The public information officer (PIO) for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office at the time was Jack Espinosa, the first civilian PIO in the country. When he heard of the incident, he got in his car and called on his car phone (at that time, cell phones and car phones were very rare) every crime beat reporter in the city, and asked them to meet him at the crime scene. He also called the watch commander and advised him not to speak to a soul until he arrived at the scene. Once there, he collected all the information about the incident, and then brought the senior officer on scene in front of the gaggle of press he had called. He held an impromptu press conference and answered every question from every reporter, making clear every detail of the incident.
The end result was that the reporters, and their editors, came to the same conclusion as the investigators – while tragic, there was nothing the deputy could have done to change the outcome of the evening without having placed himself in what he believed was mortal danger. Also, the reporters had no suspicions that there was any kind of cover-up in place, as they were given access to the crime scene and the commanding officer on the scene.
The next morning, news of the shooting hit the papers, but not as a banner headline. Instead, it was a brief in the back portions of the papers, and one of the major dailies decided it wasn't worth covering at all. A PR disaster of life-threatening proportions was averted by first controlling the flow of information, and then opening the information flow in a professional manner, with a communications pro as the gatekeeper.
Espinosa, who later became known nationally for his skill, had a plan in place on how to handle a crisis. He executed it instantly, controlled the story and served the press in such a way that it muted the story and its impact before it had a chance to balloon into a full fledged crisis.
Companies need to make such a PR insurance policy a mission-critical task, and part of their overall marketing strategies and tactics.