Tiger’s Back, but Nike Never Left: Three things PR professionals can learn from Nike’s loyalty to Tiger Woods

I couldn’t tell you the difference between a birdie and a bogey. I rue the day someone asks me to define a par vs. a putt. But, I would have to live under a rock not to know that the Masters Tournament was this past weekend and that Tiger Woods is BACK. Although I do love a good comeback story, no one loved Tiger’s success more than Nike.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. Nike and Tiger Woods’ relationship dates back to 1996 when they signed a $40 million, five-year endorsement deal. By 2000, his five-year financial deal doubled in size to an estimated $85 million. Between 2000 and 2009, Tiger was coming off of win after win; it wasn’t until late 2009 that his reign started to unravel right before the public’s eyes. Between multiple accounts of infidelity, a tumultuous relationship, and a charge of drinking behind the wheel, many sponsorships jumped ship. However, Nike never did. Back in 2010, Nike’s brand president Charlie Denson was asked about the company’s plan to stick with Woods, and he said, “he’s got issues he needs to deal with and he’s dealing with them. We are looking forward to him getting back on the golf course,” and over ten years later, that’s exactly what Tiger Woods did.

Woods is not the only controversial athlete Nike has stood behind when the going got tough. In 2015, Nike signed a lifetime deal with the contentious basketball player Lebron James. In 2018, Nike released an ad starring Colin Kaepernick, a football star notoriously known for kneeling during the national anthem. So, what can PR agencies learn from this coveted industry sponsor that remains unshakably reliable to the athletes they represent?

  1. Loyalty is everything. The same way Nike is loyal to their sponsees, agencies must be loyal to their clients. As soon as a proposal is agreed upon and signed, the client and agency have formed a partnership, a bond. From that moment forward, the agency’s sole priority is to make decisions based on the best interest of the client. If the client receives negative publicity, it is an agency’s mission to soften the blow and change the narrative. When the client succeeds, it is the agency’s priority to have the client’s story told and circulated within their industry and beyond. When Tiger struggled in his personal life, Charlie Denson and the rest of Nike stood by his side. As soon as Tiger won the Masters this past weekend, Nike released a video highlighting his triumphs and victories. Nike first signed with Tiger in 1996. 23 years ago. Twenty-three years of partner loyalty is something every PR agency should strive to vaunt.
  2. After the rain comes a rainbow. No matter how strong the storm, a successful PR agency does not jump ship. It remains resilient. To weather any client’s PR crisis, the agency must be well prepared internally. The most influential and persuasive internal resources are willing to put in the time and utmost effort on the client’s behalf. Even when Lebron James misspoke, or Tiger Woods acted against his better judgment, Nike understood that time mattered most. Nike was willing to put time and effort into the personal growth of Tiger Woods, and now they can celebrate his achievements. If PR agencies support their clients and are willing to wait out their rainstorms, they too will get to experience rainbows.
  3. Earn a partner’s trust. A successful PR agency knows that building a client’s trust and reliability does not happen overnight. Word of mouth can be an agency’s best friend or worst enemy. Nike’s loyalty to Tiger Woods has lasted over two decades. Tiger put his trust in Nike, and while other company sponsors left, Nike proved to Tiger, and the world, that they are a faithful sponsor. Agencies looking to propel themselves beyond the competition must be willing to believe in their clients. In turn, clients will reciprocate and put their trust in their agency. A leader in the industry has earned the trust not only of their clients, but also of their potential clients, and even their competitors.

Nike got $22.5 million from Woods’ last round at the Masters tournament. Some may view this as the rainbow. To successful corporations like Nike, this sponsorship had a lot less to do with money and a lot more to do with loyalty, resilience, and trust. If every PR agency can truly embody these three characteristics, the fairway’s the limit.

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