Tiger Woods and the Lesson of How Not to Manage an Image Crisis

Tiger's Woods announcement this week that he will play the Masters Tournament next month wasn't all that surprising. The controlled environment at Augusta -- the rules governing fans and media are strict -- is a ideal stage for the famed golfer to end his self-exile.

But off the golf course, Tiger continues to surprise us. The news that he has retained Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary in the Bush administration, to repair his tattered image is another in a series of head-scratching revelations about Tiger and his choices.

As the highest-paid athlete in the world, Tiger can afford to hire the best image consultants. Yet from the moment his serial adultery became fodder for the tabloids, the golfer's response to the scandal has been a case study in how not to manage an image crisis.

And now comes Fleischer, a man best remembered for his staunch defense of the Iraq war and the existence of weapons of mass destruction, to guide Tiger as he prepares to rejoin the PGA tour at the Masters Tournament in April.

It didn't have to come to this. Early on, Tiger should have followed what is known in marketing as the "fact procedure" to mitigate the damage to his image. When his sexual affairs first become public late last year, he should have admitted and apologized for them, then announced how he was going to deal with his problem.

Instead, Tiger tried to sweep the scandal under the rug, calling it a personal issue between him and his wife, and hoped it would all go away. At his Feb. 19 "press conference," he finally admitted he has a problem, apologized to family, friends and fans for it, and announced he was in treatment. But the no-questions-allowed format didn't help the cause of his image.

What Tiger doesn't seem to understand is that when your squeaky-clean image, talent and success put you on a sky-high pedestal, the public and the media don't let you pick and choose which elements of your life are public and which are private. Tiger's fall from public grace has been so great that it will take a Michelangelo of image consultants to restore his broken image.

Fleischer is no Michelangelo. He's got baggage.

For starters, there is his credibility problem. As press secretary, Fleischer's job was to sell former President Bush's agenda, which included going to war against Saddam Hussein because he was believed to have weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found, the war lasted longer, was bloodier and cost more than originally estimated, and Bush left office with a record-low approval rating.

Fleisher cannot wipe away that association. What he tirelessly insisted was true turned out to be false.

After leaving the White House, Fleischer formed Ari Fleischer Sports Communications in partnership with IMG, a sports, media and entertainment consulting firm. One of his first star-athlete clients with an outsized image problem was baseball slugger Mark McGwire.

Long suspected of using steroids in his quest to break Roger Maris' single-season homerun record, McGwire further soiled his image when he refused to answer questions about his steroid use before a congressional committee in 2005. To repair the damage, Fleischer orchestrated earlier this year what amounted to an apology tour on television for McGwire, with the disgraced slugger traveling to one interview after another.

By most accounts, however, the slugger's image is not much improved. His name still draws snickers among sports fans, and this year he received just 23.7% of the vote in the annual Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, a percentage no better than before he hired Fleischer.

True, McGwire's problem is different from Tiger's. Tiger cheated on his wife, while McGwire cheated at his profession by taking steroids. McGwire admitted his steroid use after leaving baseball. Tiger remains at the top of his game with years of playing time left.

But Fleischer's association with the man who many baseball purists and fans believe stained America's pastime forever further taints him in the image wars.

So where does all this leave Tiger? The public does not trust Tiger? People imagined him living a near-perfect life -- a wizard on the golf course, a loving family man at home. That image earned him big-time endorsements and put him on a path to become the first billionaire athlete. Then came the revelations of his adultery that put a lie to it all.

How is hiring the consultant who once pushed WMD in Iraq and took on the job of rehabbing one of baseball's least-admired players going to help the world's best golfer restore the public's trust?

Tiger would be wiser to retain an image consultant whose hiring doesn't make news.

Of course, Tiger may not need help from any consultant. He will never reclaim his once-pristine image. But he has the talent and will to do his own image rebuilding. Remember what happened to Michael Jordan? During the Chicago Bulls' playoff run in 1993, Jordan's gambling problem received widespread attention. In part because of heat from the media, he retired from professional basketball and even tried his hand at professional baseball. Then in 1995, he announced -- "I'm back." Fans and the NBA welcomed the game's top draw with open arms.

This is could well be Tiger's fate too, now that he's back playing competitive golf.

Ira Kalb is a professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at USC and marketing consultant.