Crisis communications: Cleveland Cavaliers drop the ball on LeBron James

by Karl Sakas on July 10, 2010

Crisis communications includes planning who does what before disaster strikes. You get your spokesperson ready, and you pre-write announcements that anticipate various scenarios. You need a Plan A and a Plan B. Unfortunately, Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert didn’t get the memo — the ‘B’ in “Plan B” doesn’t stand for “bitter.”

Gilbert published an angry letter to Cavs fans, castigating basketball star LeBron “King” James for abandoning his hometown team for Miami — here’s an excerpt:

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.

Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us.

The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you.

That’s all mostly true — LeBron James is indeed a narcissistic self-promoter. But what amuses me is that I’m sure the basketball team’s PR department wrote two different versions of the letter in preparation for the star’s announcement:

  1. one gloating to the world that LeBron stayed
  2. another version complaining how he betrayed them

I mean, come on — if the opposite happened and LeBron had stayed, the Cavaliers would be trumpeting (vuvuzela’ing?) that news. PR lesson? Stay classy, Cleveland.

What do you think owner Dan Gilbert should have done after LeBron James spurned him and the Cavaliers?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Grant Martin July 11, 2010

My first reaction to Dan Gilbert’s open letter was, “This has to be some kind of a farce.” As if the content, grammar, and punctuation weren’t laughable enough, the thing was written in Comic Sans font. Comic Sans! As I read on, it slowly dawned on me that this dude was serious. And that the only laughter was going to be directed at Mr. Gilbert himself.

PR is not my strong suit, but at a recent International Association of Business Communicators event titled “Crisis Communications: When Your Worst-Case Scenario Becomes a Reality, ” I learned that some of the most important tenets of crisis communications are to establish your key messages early, be consistent, and stick to the script.

I would add that if you’re going to be the person delivering the message, you need to be the grown-up and take the high road, even if your feelings are hurt. Shelve the sarcasm, and for the love of all things holy, please use a tiny fraction of what you were willing to pay Mr. James and hire a good copy editor.

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Karl Sakas July 11, 2010

“…please use a tiny fraction of what you were willing to pay Mr. James and hire a good copy editor.”

@Grant: Thanks for your in-depth analysis! You’re right — the tone and presentation don’t make it seem like a serious communication. I can understand Dan Gilbert’s hurt feelings, but it’s not like this was a complete surprise for Cleveland — there were just two possible outcomes that they needed to plan for, from a PR perspective.

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