PR Lessons from the Ryder Cup and Hash Tags in the Sky
Recently I had the honor and privilege of serving as a volunteer (along with 4,000 others from around the world) at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club. It was an exciting chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity, at least for me. Whether or not you follow golf, it was easy to get swept up in the excitement of team competition and the pride of cheering on the home country in its attempt to win back the Cup from the Europeans.
In the end, despite the U.S. team leading going into the final day, the Europeans managed to put up stunning scores in the singles competition to win, much to the disappointment of American golf fans everywhere. Though many golf analysts called it a collapse, it was a valiant effort by most members of the the U.S. team, led by Davis Love III and featuring a who’s-who of golf’s best players. Most notably was the duo of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, who dazzled the crowed and dominated the team portion of the competition.
Among the lineup was Tiger Woods. We all know what this high-profile athlete has gone through since his November 2009 scandal heard round the world. There’s a debate as to whether Woods was already on the decline prior to his fall from grace, but the record shows that he’s won only three tournaments since then (all of them this year), and no majors. In 2009, he had already won six tournaments before November.
What struck me about his appearance at the Ryder Cup, however, was the ongoing dichotomy of reaction to this sports icon. He’s currently the No. 2 ranked player in the world (behind Rory McIlroy) and also second in the money rankings on the PGA TOUR. Naturally, hoards of people still root him on to recapture his former glory. At the Ryder Cup, fans young and old and were eager to follow him from hole to hole — and were disappointed when he opted not to finish the Tuesday practice round when many of the junior golfers had their one chance to come out and see the players.
But what I’ll never forget is what I saw on the last day of volunteering, which happened to be Saturday, on my way to the parking lot. That morning, Paddy Power, an Irish gambling site known for its controversial ad campaigns, took to the skies above Medinah with “Sky Tweets” (complete with hash tags) in support of team Europe. Supposedly the messages were selected from their Twitter followers’ suggestions. Woods had been benched by Love for Saturday’s morning round (for the first time in his career) and the “Paddy Power planes” posted the message: “Seen Tiger? #GOEurope” as a way to taunt him for being absent from the line-up.
However that afternoon when Woods returned to play it got more personal. What I captured in the photo at left read, “Fore! Tiger’s Back”, which is snarky enough. What you don’t see is that the planes went on to write “Go Team Nordegren!” Ouch. A direct reference to his ex-wife Elin Nordegren. Woods’ play that day and the next has been described as a “disaster” by some sports writers and he revealed yesterday that he had issued an apology to the younger Ryder Cup team members for not being able to win more points for the team. Does the negative publicity get to him and affect his play? I don’t know, but it does affect his brand.
We have come a long way from the days of JFK almost openly having an affair in the White House (according to Mimi Alford who revealed all in an autobiography and media tour earlier this year) and no one ever breathing a word of it to what some would say was a total collapse of the career — or at least image — of a sports legend whose personal life became the subject of national headlines in almost real time.
Now, not to compare Tiger Woods to a president of the United States, but only to say that nothing is secret (or sacred?) anymore in the eyes of the public or the media. News, or anything of interest to the public, is reported in real time and spreads instantly around the globe. And although three years have passed and he’s starting to win tournaments again, Woods has been unable to shake the ghost of his actions and they continue to haunt him. He’s no longer the platinum standard for major sponsors and companies now think twice before aligning their brand to his.
Therein lies the PR lesson. Anyone at any time is open to being part of a news story (next I’ll take a look at Jennifer Livingston and Kenneth Krause — you know, the man who wrote the email to the Wisconsin news anchor telling her she’s overweight?). And even if you’re not part of a news story, you are projecting an image. Whether it’s you as an individual or your company, everything you do is open to interpretation, criticism or even outright judgement. It’s up to you how you handle it (or not), but know that your actions and what you put out there for public consumption sticks with you and becomes a part of your brand.
We are all CMOs of our own brand image. What is the PR message we would want written in the sky about us three years from now?