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Grow: Mia Wedgbury

Small-business lessons from Tiger Woods Add to ...

Have you had your fill of the Tiger Woods story yet? If not, you're in luck. It continues to pop up in the news cycle even after all these weeks.

It didn't have to be this way. If Mr. Woods had followed some basic communications best-practices from the get go, we'd be seeing a different kind of coverage. There's an important lesson here for business owners on how not to handle a crisis, and the implications of letting others tell your story.

Many of you will recall (and you'll note we don't read much about it any more) the recent plight of U.S. talk show host David Letterman. He, like Mr. Woods, was caught up in an extramarital affair scandal. Mr. Letterman understood, however, that the No. 1 priority during a time of crisis is to take ownership of the issue, be pro-active, and answer questions before they're asked.

Rather than waiting for rumours to take root, as they inevitably would have, Mr. Letterman broke the news of his affairs and subsequent alleged extortion attempt live on his show. He used another broadcast to apologize to his family. Mr. Letterman did not escape negative coverage, of course – that was never realistic. But he did not hide, nor did he try to spin the facts. From the start, reporters covering Mr. Letterman didn't have to dig to get to the truth. He was providing it.

Responding to allegations with silence, no comment, or vague answers tells people, rightly or wrongly, that something is going on, prompting reporters to find the “real” story. For Mr. Letterman the result was a wave of public sympathy and little impact on the Letterman brand.

Contrast that with Mr. Woods, who said and did very little in the days following his car crash. To fill the silence, reporters and bloggers speculated endlessly on what happened. Mr. Woods only reacted after the women allegedly involved in any affairs were identified, and damning evidence surfaced. It's still too early to tell where this will lead, but Mr. Woods' brand is likely tarnished, at least to some degree and, as of this writing, he has yet to make any live, public statement. The frenzy continues.

Few of us have the profile or public allure of Mr. Woods and Mr. Letterman. But the lesson here applies to all business owners: If you don't take communications seriously, you put your image at risk. Maybe you made a mistake, and customers are making statements about you or your brand on blogs or on Twitter. Or maybe your industry's reputation is taking a beating based on high-profile incidents like a product recall.

Don't wait for things to blow over.

If you have facts you want your customers to know, take action. Make yourself available to reporters as an industry spokesperson to provide your viewpoints, and be sure to build a strong online presence so you can respond to critics and clear up myths and misconceptions.

The bottom line – take a cue from Mr. Letterman and don't run for cover when things get tough. It's the best way to protect your image.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Mia Wedgbury, president and co-founder of High Road Communications, operates Canada's largest public relations agency focused on technology and digital lifestyle. The company, which has been recognized as one of the best workplaces in Canada for two years running, has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and San Francisco. A seasoned PR expert with more than 18 years of experience, Ms. Wedgbury has directed global brand positioning programs, handled crisis communications, managed international product launches and developed PR strategy for companies across the entire tech and lifestyle spectrum. In 2006, she also helped the agency launch the High Road Connect practice – a social media, Web 2.0 and marketing services group – to help companies transcend conventional communications. Ms. Wedgbury's clients include Microsoft Canada, MSN, Canon Canada, Disney and LG Electronics.

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