Crisis communications: Payment row tees up a masterclass in PR mismanagement

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Payment row tees up a masterclass in PR mismanagement

When you are in a hole you need to stop digging.

That is one of the key rules of crisis media management, yet often it seems to be ignored.

The latest example of this has come from an unexpected source – golf.

The sport is not renowned for negative stories, headlines and crisis media management incidents – perhaps apart from the Tiger Woods sex scandal nine years ago – but it has been at the centre of a storm in the past few days.

And it has not been handled well.

In fact, the eventual apology from American golfer Matt Kuchar best summed it up when he said: “I made comments that were out of touch and insensitive, making a bad situation worse.”

The story has centred on a pay dispute between Kuchar and a temporary caddie, David Oritz, he employed during a tournament last November.

Kuchar, who won $1.3m in the tournament, paid the caddie $5,000 for his work rather than the 10 per cent of the first prize which is the traditional going rate.

The story about Kuchar’s alleged tightness –‘cheapskate gate’ as it has become known - should have been little more than a passing storm if handled properly.

But the golfer made the situation considerably worse and, to use a golfing phrase, landed himself in the deep rough, with a series of comments which showed he completely misjudged the story.

Firstly he tried to dismiss the story. He said: “That’s not a story. It wasn’t 10 per cent. It wasn’t $3,000” – which could be seen as suggesting the reported figure was a long way off the mark.

His agent Mark Steinberg, tried the same approach, saying: “The reports on what Matt’s caddie was offered are wildly inaccurate. However, it is inappropriate to discuss those amounts publicly.”

The strategy, if you can call it that, then moved on to claiming the caddie had agreed to the payment terms. Kuchar said: “Those were the terms. He was in agreement with those terms. That’s where I struggle. I don’t know what happened. Someone must have said ‘you need much more’.”

And then ultimately, having already claimed he wouldn’t ‘lose any sleep over the row’, there was the memorable and tone-deaf claim that $5,000 was a lot of money for a temporary caddie. He said: “For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week.”

A golfer who is generally considered to be one of the sport’s ‘good guys’ was suddenly staring at some uncomfortable headlines and social media posts:

Matt Kucher defends controversial payment to stand-in caddie CNN

Matt Kuchar PGA Tour golfer paid ‘lucky charm’ caddie just $5,000 after winning $1 million-plus purse Washington Post

Matt Kuchar ‘not losing sleep’ over stiffing caddie off $1.3m win New York Post

Matt Kuchar: The rich golfer who stiffed his caddie The Globe and Mail

 

 

Eventually, in light of this growing media and social media criticism, and comments from fans on the course, Kuchar made a U-turn and issued a detailed apology with a promise to pay Mr Oritz ‘the full total he has requested’.

He said: “This week, I made comments that were out of touch and insensitive, making a bad situation worse.

“They made it seem like I was marginalizing (SIC) David Oritz and his financial situation, which was not my intention.

“I read them again and cringed. This is not who I am and not what I want to represent.”

 

 

On the whole, it is an apology that hits the right notes, with a promise to call Mr Oritz and personally apologise.

But it has come at the end of a masterclass in reputation mismanagement, and would have been far more impactful had this come earlier rather than after the situation had been allowed to escalate wildly.

Critics will suggest the belated statement was only issued to try to limit the damage – only time will tell whether Kuchar’s reputation can be restored.

 

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