Woods hopes tightly controlled mea culpa works

Woods hopes tightly controlled mea culpa works

Published Feb. 18, 2010 6:37 p.m. ET

The ritual celebrity apology: We've seen it time and again, from Kanye West to Mark Sanford to John Edwards to Mel Gibson to Mark McGwire. And now it's Tiger Woods' turn.

Only this time there will be no Oprah, no Leno, no ``Nightline'' - no inquisitor at all, just a single camera, some unidentified friends and a handful of reporters, unable to ask questions. Woods is gambling that his words and charisma can achieve the public redemption that he sorely needs.

``The whole world has been waiting for three long months,'' says Laura Ries, who heads a brand strategy firm in Atlanta. ``And the longer he's postponed it, the bigger it's become.''

Media organizations are naturally angry that Woods, who until now has only issued a written apology, is refusing questions. They see it as the same old Tiger - the Tiger who always played by his own rules when it came to the media, stage-managing the carefully selected appearances he made.


Yet many others can understand why he's handling his public confession this way.

``He's not stupid,'' says sports psychologist Mitchell Abrams. ``At least this way no one can stump him - he'll only be saying what his PR people have already vetted.''

But the whole approach could backfire, notes Rick Burton, a communications professor who specializes in sports marketing.

``He's trying to control the moment, but the problem is that by not having a dialogue where he can look into someone's eyes, he's going to continue to seem impersonal,'' says Burton. ``It's Communications 101 - you tell your story in a personal way. But clearly his advisers, family and friends think this is the way to go.''

Besides, the media will spin the story the way they see it, adds Burton, of Syracuse University. ``Tiger may think that just by looking into the camera he'll be speaking directly to the public, but the reality is that the media is going to interpret his communication.

``And so right away, Tiger has lost control.''

Journalists may be irate, but the public may not notice or even care that there will be no give and take with the world's best golfer. Experts agree it all depends on what he says - and even more importantly, how he says it.

First, Woods needs to be contrite - genuinely, unmistakably contrite - not to mention humble, and visibly aware of what he's done both to his image and his marriage, says John Sweeney, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's journalism school. And much of that has to do with the nonverbal cues Woods gives.

``Look, people have been waiting for this for a long time,'' says Sweeney, who is director of sports communication at the school. ``They're going to be looking into his eyes tomorrow. If he can convey true, heartfelt remorse with the one camera available, then he has a chance at getting back the incredible good will fans had for him.

``But if they see the old Tiger - the one who gives an impersonal statement and then is outta there - then it'll just be another slam against his brand,'' Sweeney says. ``If he mishandles this, some people are just gonna walk away thinking, 'You kept us waiting months, for this? You put your wife through tabloid hell, for this?'''

Indeed, one nonverbal cue that would help Woods enormously Friday would be the presence of his wife, Elin.

``Obviously the best-case scenario is that she's there, in the front row,'' says Ries. ``Of course it can be painful to watch, as it was with Eliot Spitzer's wife,'' she says. ``But having the wife there says a lot. If she can forgive him, why not everyone else?''

So what precisely should a contrite Woods say? Enough to answer the most pressing questions, but not TOO much about the sordid recent past, some say.

``I don't want to hear too many details about sex addiction,'' says Ries, president of the Ries and Ries branding firm. ``I don't need to hear anything New Agey either. But he needs to give us the State of the Union of Tiger. And he needs to talk about golf, too. Is he going back? When, exactly? People want to know that he has a future ahead of him, that he's not some randy frat boy but a champion who wants to focus on golf and his family.''

And while he's talking about that, make sure it's not too polished, offers Pauline Wallin, a psychologist who deals with impulsive behavior.

``The less rehearsed the better,'' says Wallin. ``He needs to be authentic. If he stumbles on his words, people will believe it more - a little bit of rambling might help, too.''

And another thing, Wallin adds: ``He still needs to go on a talk show. The public expects that now. You do something wrong, you go on a talk show.''

To some, it won't matter much what Woods says or how he says it. Any apology will have a false ring to it, says ethics columnist Randy Cohen, because the evidence shows that Woods clearly enjoyed what he was doing - so much that he did it again and again and again.

``So what is this apology, other than a relentless pursuit of self-interest?'' Cohen asks. ``He hopes his wife will come back, that he can play golf again and make money again. But it will be hard to be persuaded that he's changed his view of anything, other than he regrets getting caught.''

But from a strategic point of view, will the apology work? ``Probably,'' Cohen laughs. ``In our country we love this cycle of sin, confession mixed with remorse, readmission to society, repeat as needed. We have songs about it. You sin on Saturday night, confess on Sunday morning, and you're back at it the next Saturday night.''

As a society, we may need the ritual apology - in any case, we certainly won't be able to resist watching it.

But we mustn't forget, notes Abrams, the psychologist, that we're not the ones who really deserve the apology in the first place.

``There's a family we should be thinking about,'' says Abrams. ``A real family, with children, and their future is in the balance. I hope for their sake that they work this out. And they shouldn't have to do it in public.''