When it comes to dealing with a personal crisis, Tiger Woods could learn a lot from David Letterman, media experts say.
Instead of a vague statement that left many questions unanswered, the late-night comic went very public with his admission of bad behavior, and even cracked a few jokes at his own expense. After a few days, everyone moved on.
"Men and women have been forgiven by their public for misbehavior or misstepping, and even philandering," said Gene Grabowski, who guides high-profile figures through public relations crises as a senior vice president with Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications.
"But what they have never been forgiven for is the cover-up," he said.
Of course, Woods doesn't have his own talk show, and a public mea culpa isn't his style, anyway. The world's most famous athlete and No. 1 golfer goes to great lengths to guard his image, on and off the course. He steers clear of anything with even a hint of controversy, anything that would raise an eyebrow.
But his statement Sunday about the "embarrassing" situation surrounding his car crash, coupled with his refusal to meet with police, is only heightening suspicion that something is not quite what it seems.
"It's his privilege not to address the other innuendoes and reports that have surfaced over the last three or four days," said Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16W Marketing. "But by not addressing them, I believe he has set up a situation where the story will continue to be the story."
Grabowski, whose clients have included Roger Clemens, agreed.
"Tiger risks making this a bigger issue than it has to be," he said. "And bringing greater embarrassment to his family."
Woods withdrew from his own golf tournament this week, the Chevron World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif., citing injuries from the car crash. While that may spare him from facing reporters for now, he is almost certain to be questioned about it at the end of January, when he is likely to make his 2010 debut at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.
Letterman's indiscretions had all the makings of a long-running tabloid cover story. While not telling all, the married father admitted he'd had sex with women who worked on his show, with one of the trysts leading to an alleged blackmail plot.
By revealing that himself, Letterman followed the No. 1 rule in crisis communication: Take control of the story.
"My recommendation is always to get out in front and curtail speculation by distributing fact," said George Merlis, founder of Experience Media Consulting Group. "Because the speculation gets dangerous and, once it's out there, speculation has a nasty habit of becoming accepted as fact.
"By not talking or addressing issues, you're inviting everyone on all sides to express vague opinions, and they end up dominating the conversation."
New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte figured that out. Rather than stonewalling or sidestepping allegations they used performance-enhancing drugs, like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire did, both admitted it and apologized. While Bonds and McGwire remain pariahs, Rodriguez was treated like a hero as the Yankees won their 27th World Series title. Pettitte hung out with Letterman.
When Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault, he tearfully admitted he was guilty of adultery — and nothing else. Charges were later dropped and while his reputation took a brief hit, fans have obviously gotten over it. His jersey is the top seller in the United States, Europe and China.
Woods' troubles began with a middle-of-the-night accident outside his Isleworth estate.
He crashed his Cadillac SUV at 2:25 a.m. Friday, and his wife told police she used a golf club to smash the back window to help him out. But Woods has yet to say where he was going at that hour, or explain how he lost control of the SUV when the speed didn't even cause the air bags to deploy.
"It doesn't add up," Grabowski said. "He needs to do a better job of describing the cause of the accident. That's the crux of the question."
In a statement posted Sunday on his Web site, Woods said only that the accident was his fault.
"It's obviously embarrassing to my family and me," he said. "I'm human and I'm not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn't happen again."
He acknowledged the "many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me," but didn't address them except to say they are "irresponsible." He then asked for privacy.
The accident came two days after the National Enquirer published a story alleging that Woods had been seeing a New York night club hostess. The woman, Rachel Uchitel, denied having an affair with Woods when contacted by The Associated Press.
"I'm not sure it's his moral responsibility to the general public to say every bit of what's going on," Rosner said. "But I personally don't think it's going to go away now because he did not address the rumors and innuendoes of the reports about his personal life."
And the truth always comes out, said Mike Paul, founder and president of MGP & Associates PR. Evading an issue, Paul said, will only encourage people to dig further, to find evidence of what they assume or suspect to be true.
Besides, it's a little too late to plead for privacy, Paul said.
In becoming a professional athlete — particularly one who earns tens of millions each year from endorsements — Woods assumed a responsibility to fans, Paul said. He owes them answers, even when they're embarrassing, deeply personal or concern matters ordinary people would never be asked to discuss.
"Your fans are asking the question, you have to answer it," Paul said. "They will not stop asking it until they get an answer."