by Frank Williams
Over the past couple of weeks the media has made much of NBA star LeBron James’ free agency and subsequent decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat. When I look at this situation from the perspective of a public relations counselor, several things jump out at me.
First, let’s consider some background and context.
Prior to last night, LeBron James had been a Cleveland Cavalier for his entire professional career. When he joined the Cavaliers, they were at the bottom of the NBA. For the past four years, they have been legitimate contenders for an NBA title. James made Cleveland a championship contender — an important fact when you consider that the last time a Cleveland professional sports team won a championship was in 1964. He brought hope to a city of sports fans that feels it has been cursed since 1964.
Additionally, James is a native of Akron, Ohio, less than an hour from Cleveland. He was not only a sports hero in Cleveland; he was a home-grown hero. This fact only increased fans’ emotional connection to him.
Any team’s fans would have been upset to see a player of LeBron James’ caliber depart for another team. In Cleveland, those feelings of disappointment were amplified by fans’ emotional connection to him.
This brings me to the first thing that I think was a public relations mistake. As you may know, James announced his plans to leave Cleveland for Miami on a highly publicized, nationally televised, hour-long ESPN special dubbed “The Decision”. I believe this was a mistake.
First, as many sports pundits pointed out in the hours leading up to LeBron’s announcement, making the announcement on national television would only serve to rub salt in the wound if he chose to leave Cleveland. Comments from Cleveland fans to various media outlets in advance of the announcement reiterated this fact. After James’ announcement, Cavaliers’ majority owner Dan Gilbert made this statement in an open letter to Cavaliers’ fans: “As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his ‘decision’ unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.”
Even if James had the best of intentions, making the announcement on a nationally televised special fueled sentiments that he, like many other professional athletes, has become arrogant. This sentiment is harmful to both James and the NBA. First, he has developed a persona that sets him apart from other athletes; I believe making his announcement in this manner helped undermine that persona. Second, he is one of the faces of the NBA, and the NBA needs positive spokesmen.
There are two key messages that I believe got lost in the shuffle because of the media hype leading up to the ESPN special on which James announced his plans. First, he sacrificed a significant amount of money — up to $30 million according to several media reports — to leave Cleveland and join Miami. Unlike many other professional athletes, James’ decision was clearly not about money. Second, at the end of his special he announced that proceeds from the special were going to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs in several cities.
There are some who will disagree with my assertion that the televised special was a mistake for LeBron James. They will say things like, “Look at all of the publicity he got!” First, LeBron is already a known commodity; everyone who watched the special likely already held an opinion of him. Unfortunately, I believe the hype surrounding his announcement (and the manner in which it was made) negatively impacted many fans’ views of him. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” As ESPN.com writer J.A. Adande said in this article, “In this case promotion took precedence over protocol.”
As stated earlier, Cleveland Cavaliers’ majority owner Don Gilbert issued a strongly worded open letter to Cleveland fans. When I read news coverage of his remarks, my initial reaction was that his statements were too strong. However, as I thought more about the situation, I realized that his remarks were aimed exclusively at one public: Cleveland’s fans. For the most part, his comments were right on point for that audience. However, given the fact that others – including players who might consider signing with Cleveland – will read his statements, I believe they should have been toned down significantly. The tone of Gilbert’s comments came across as a knee-jerk emotional response. At the same time, his letter was likely an accurate reflection of the sentiments of the Cleveland fan base.
Additionally, Gilbert’s letter said “”I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE [Gilbert’s emphasis]. You can take it to the bank.” It was a mistake to say this; you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.
In closing, I am not passing judgment on LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, I believe the manner in which he made his announcement rubbed salt in the wounds of the Cleveland fans and franchise who have supported him during his seven years in the league. Further, I believe that the manner in which made his announcement undermines the brand he has built for himself. This piece by ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski, which I found after I wrote this article, calls it “LeBron’s Unsavory ‘Decision’ Spectacle.” That about sums it up.
Frank Williams is president of Pioneer Strategies, a public relations agency he founded in 2001. For more information, visit http://www.pioneerstrategies.com.