The Kelly Tilghman “Lynchident” is an object lesson in how public relations has changed—and how it hasn’t—in the New Media age.
If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a summary: during a recent PGA event, after commentator Nick Faldo said that Tiger Woods’ opponents might want to “gang up” on him, Tilghman took things one step further by suggesting that they should “lynch [Woods] in a back alley.”As a result of her comment, Tilghman received a two-week suspension from the Golf Channel (she’s due back Thursday). Woods has brushed the whole thing off as a “non-incident,” but the Rev. Al Sharpton is calling for her to be fired.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the story, however, was what followed, as the Chicago Tribune’s Ed Sherman reports:
The first person to get fired as a result of Kelly Tilghman's "lynch" comment wasn't Kelly Tilghman.
Golfweek editor Dave Seanor was dismissed Friday, the fall guy for the magazine's decision to use a cover featuring a noose in its report of the Tilghman controversy.
Bad decisions all the way around, that’s for sure. So what can those in PR and media learn from all of this? Quite a bit, actually:
- Branding matters. Tilghman and Seanor’s employers celebrate all things golf, and that means they are part of the sport’s ethos. The downside is that this ethos includes an unfortunate legacy of racism, sexism and exclusivity that affects any brand that aligns itself with professional golf. Would have Tilghman’s words and Seanor’s cover have gone unnoticed if the sport was baseball, basketball, or football? No, but golf’s reputation as discriminatory towards minorities—warranted or not—sure didn’t help. (And it’s worth noting that even though Woods’ race and Tilghman’s gender demonstrate how far the sport has come in recent years, the brand is still bigger than any one person.)
- But your personal brand matters, too. Most people probably hadn't heard of Tilghman before her gaffe--and that may benefit her in this case because we're not predisposed to support or criticize her. Among those who do know her, however, she seems to have a reputation as a solid, uncontroversial professional (in a world where solid and uncontroversial are highly valued). This makes her much different than the likes of Don Imus and Howard Cosell, whose careers changed dramatically after they made comments that were deemed insensitive. Both Imus and Cosell built their reputation with their mouths, which paid off handsomely for both for most of their careers—until they slipped up. The lesson? Be aware of your “personal brand” and the risks that come with it. What you’re known for can make you famous—or infamous.
- Personal relationships matter. When you discover that Woods and Tilghman are friends, it takes a lot of air out of the argument that Tilghman had malicious intent. And when Woods came to her defense quickly and unequivocally, it took a lot of air our of the controversy as a whole. Who you know, and how you treat them, still means something.
- YouTube and the blogs are watching. Today, if you make a mistake, someone’s going to catch it. And if you’re in the spotlight, you’re going to make a mistake eventually. What can you do about it? Mitigate the damage by apologizing early and sincerely. And don’t try to make believe it didn’t happen, because your audience can log onto YouTube and watch it happen over and over again. I don't know how many people saw Tilghman’s slip up when it was first broadcast. But it’s almost a guarantee that the original audience is inconsequential as compared to the number of people who have watched it on YouTube or read about it on a blog. News has always traveled fast, but today it doesn’t even have to move—it just sits there where millions of people can find it, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, forever.
It’s obviously better if you can stay out of trouble in the first place, but the next best thing is being prepared. Think ahead to how you’d respond if you were in Tilghman’s Footjoys. Everybody makes mistakes, but what really matters is whether your immediate response minimizes the damage—or makes things even worse.