Tiger, Toyota and the Truth

One of the tenets of crisis management is that mea culpas need to be genuine, but neither Tiger nor Toyota seemed sincere in their apologies.
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Last Friday we put another pop culture moment in the capsule for our time. Where were you when Tiger spoke, looked and hugged? After three months of letting others control his story, Tiger finally reclaimed a little of the control he had mastered so expertly before Thanksgiving. It doesn't matter whether you're a celebrity or a company - Tiger or Toyota - the first step to recovery is to admit that you've made a mistake.

Tiger waited three months before coming forward because of his desire for privacy. Indeed, his boat is named "Privacy," but perhaps a better name would be "Reality." In 2010, when you're the top athlete in the world and you commit an indiscretion, any desire for privacy is not realistic. The psychological question at hand might be, "Didn't he realize he'd get caught in this day and age - and did he care?"

The same question applies to Toyota. Its actions make one wonder whether the company's esteemed reputation comes from a quality corporate culture of a bygone day - or was it just more successful at image management before this era of immediate, omnipresent news? If you're in the public eye or hold the public trust, the truth always comes out. As such, both Tiger and Toyota have failed PR 101.

Neither Tiger nor Toyota got ahead of the story. The facts keep materializing, one-by-one, as told by others. Tiger's spokespeople have been his neighbors, his girlfriends and the Florida police. Toyota's spokespeople have been wronged families, safety advocates and regulators. Tiger could have defined the story himself three months ago - and Toyota should have three years ago.

Neither Tiger nor Toyota seemed sincere in their apologies. One of the tenets of crisis management is that mea culpas need to be genuine. Tiger correctly acknowledged that his words won't mean anything if his actions don't follow suit. But the gestures of the apology were rehearsed, and the words read off a page. Scripted is the opposite of sincere. Taking a few reporters' questions would have allowed Woods to speak from his heart.

But where Tiger's woes are interesting, Toyota's are important. While its CEO keeps trying to apologize, every utterance feels shallow, given that each day a new revelation comes out about a safety issue Toyota worked to hide. Since the facts will emerge, Toyota needs to announce immediately a full account of vehicle problems, past cover-ups and comprehensive solutions. This is just the first of dozens of steps the company must take to regain the public trust - but every day that Toyota waits to get out the ugly truth costs its image, and more urgently, costs lives. It's the right thing to do.

Usually the biggest boats in the ocean survive the toughest waters, and these twin poster children of poor crisis management can return to their previous standings. To Tiger's advantage, we live in a forgiving country, where the comeback is always more rewarding than the teardown. If he focuses on his family and on his game play, he'll be at or near his former heights. Just ask Kobe Bryant, who was accused of much worse.

Assuming Toyota does the full, unedited, complete mea culpa and its follow-on actions correspond, the question then becomes, "Who, exactly, is going to walk into a Toyota dealership today?" Toyota has the deep pockets to survive, and it needs to give its customers a massive incentive to return, such as a historic rebate on a new model or an inflated trade-in on a tarnished one. Toyota's road to recovery is longer and steeper than Tiger's, as it should be. Either way, the key to redemption is to admit those truths that will come out in the end.

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