How not to deal with a crisis – the Sandy Lyle way

 When I undertake media training or suggest that it would be a useful exercise for my clients, I often encounter the same one or two responses:

“I’m so used to doing media interviews, I don’t need any more training”

OR

“I watch media interviews on television all the time – it’s not hard so I don’t need any advice thanks”

As a former journalist, I know how hard it is and I often think I’m glad I’m the one in control and not the one answering the questions.

And that, of course, is the trick. Control the interview, control the situation, remain calm and do not say anything you have not prepared or are not confident about saying ‘on message’.

So I was fascinated yesterday to hear the press conference undertaken by golfer Sandy Lyle in relation to some comments he made last week and ahead of the Open golf championship, which starts today.

For those of you who don’t know, Lyle was asked if he missed out on the coveted Ryder Cup captaincy after walking off after 10 holes of last year's Open.

Ill-advisedly, he compared that incident to Colin Montgomerie accidentally dropping his ball in the wrong place after storms at the 2005 Indonesian Open.

“What he did was far worse,” said Lyle last week. “Monty dropped the ball badly and that is a form of cheating.”

Lyle realised, especially in the world of golf, with its gentleman’s rules and high regard for respect, that his comments were both damaging and inappropriate, especially since Montgomerie was cleared of any misdemeanour at the time, issued an apology for his mistake and donated his £24,000 prize money to charity.

Whether he was advised or not, Lyle absolutely did the correct thing in calling a press conference to apologise for his comments.

When a media storm breaks, especially ahead of a major event, facing the media and apologising for an error is the best way of dealing with it and hopefully softening its impact.

If Lyle had not spoken, it would perhaps have prolonged the “feud” as the media would phrase it, and detract from the important matter of the golf.

He admitted that bringing up the Montomerie incident, purely as a comparison to his own error, was a mistake. His wording was crisp and measured, his delivery sincere.

And that should have been that.

But where Lyle made a huge error was to answer questions from the media rather than finish his press conference there and then.

Perhaps he had been suitably media trained. Perhaps he had been rigorously briefed about potential questions and answers, primed for all the inevitable interrogation that would come his way.

My advice to him, on this occasion, would have been to make his statement and leave it at that.

It gave the media enough to feed on and showed that he had been suitably concerned to face them after his mistake.

Whether he had not been briefed or simply forgot his answers, the result was disastrous – a car crash of a press conference which saw Lyle say of Montgomerie's 2005 incident that “It was one of his mistakes....it will probably live with him for the rest of his life. It'll be cropping up.”

After resisting the opportunity to speak, Montgomerie was fully justified in eventually making a calm and measured comment about Lyle’s press conference, simply saying “It's a rather strange apology to be honest.”

That understatement gave Montgomerie the high ground and leaves Lyle looking even more foolish, especially when George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, chipped in with a statement, claiming Lyle’s comments “are considered wholly inappropriate and ill-timed.”

Avoiding the media is never a good idea. Fronting up and showing contrition is the best way to limit damage and rebuild a reputation.

But know what you’re going to say and don’t waver from what you’ve planned to say.

Lyle has lost the respect of a great many people because he simply did not follow those simple rules.

It will take a well-crafted communications campaign to restore his reputation but, to use his own phrase, no doubt, this incident will “keep cropping up” and it was so easily avoided.