August 1, 2014
When the news broke on June 24 that LeBron James was opting out of his contract with the NBA’s Miami Heat, it set the 29-year-old, four-time NBA MVP in a familiar situation.
Do you remember the train wreck titled “The Decision,” an ego-driven live special on ESPN in July 2010 where James, nicknamed The King, disclosed that he was signing a contract with the Heat?
James was again back in play as a free agent, and fans were hanging on any rumor, anxious to learn what team he might play for next.
For 18 days, it was nonstop Lebron Watch on ESPN and other sports networks, until an almost-pontifical puff of smoke emanated from a surprising source on July 11: SI.com, the online arm of Sports Illustrated magazine.
The story, which James told to SI reporter Lee Jenkins, stated that he was leaving the Heat and returning home to Northeast Ohio to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he played for seven years after his selection as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in 2003.
The SI.com story was written more like a love letter to the fans and communities of Miami and Cleveland. He thanked South Florida for four wonderful years and two NBA titles, and explained why it was time for him to return home, and why it was about more than just basketball. While Cleveland fans were elated by the news, even fans in Miami appeared to be moved by the sincerity of James’ missive.
James not only averted a second train wreck, he may have also repaired a lot of the damage caused in the city of Cleveland and
Here are five tactics from James’ announcement that any communicator should consider adopting:
James demonstrated a great understanding of media relations. He controlled his story. From the beginning — when he opted out of his Miami contract — he only spoke when he had something positive to say. He never spoke poorly about Miami, his current teammates or others.
In fact, he let the media do a lot of the dirty work that could have hurt his reputation. The media actually narrowed the field of potential teams to two. He didn’t have to utter a word. It was the media who declared: “He has no choice other than Miami and Cleveland,” and then made the case for that assertion. Thus, James avoided having to directly alienate Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or any of the other teams and fan bases lusting after him.
In the final days leading up to his announced return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, James executed a nearly perfect balance of transparency and aloofness. He welcomed cameras and reporters to his Las Vegas youth basketball camp. (What a positive backdrop.) But whenever reporters interviewed him, he only talked about the camp. He stayed on message.
When the questions came about his free agency, James skillfully pivoted to the young players who he was hosting at the camp. His two key messages were: These kids are the stars of tomorrow, and everything will take care of itself.
When it was time to make his announcement, James knew his primary audiences, and crafted his message accordingly.
James did not want to create a firestorm in Miami like the one that he set in Cleveland in 2010. His comments to Miami fans in the SI.com article were both sincere and specific in how he valued his time in South Florida. He thanked the community for helping him grow as a player and as a man.
To Cleveland, he mended broken fences. He admitted that the way he left town in 2010 was the mistake of a naive, ego-driven young man. He apologized, clearly and specifically, for the episode four years ago. He expressed his understanding of how some fans might still resent him, but he also made a commitment to re-earn their trust.
“The Letter” was well crafted for both fan bases. It conveyed love and respect for both audiences and showed class.
James also set reasonable expectations for himself and his new team going forward. He ditched the bravado that was the hallmark of his move to Miami, where he promised “not just one…not two…not three” NBA championships for the city. This time, he didn’t over-promise. The mature James explained that his return home to Cleveland was with the goal of bringing his hometown an NBA championship, but that it would be a process and that it might not happen quickly.
“The Letter” was the most personal communication channel for this kind of message. A press conference would have come off as another staged event, and would have seemed cold and detached to his two primary audiences. His strategy also gave him total control of the message, without having reporters’ questions distract from his original theme of “coming home.”
James quickly moved on after the announcement. Rather than schedule a series of follow-up interviews, where he would state the same things over again and have to defend each nuance of “The Letter,” James attended the final game of the World Cup in Brazil. Brazilian native, friend and Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Anderson Varajao was with him for the visit. Captured by the media in Rio, the pictures conveyed an unspoken message of closure and a return to normalcy.
Individuals in the public eye rarely get a redo. LeBron James got that chance and took full advantage of it.
With a mature understanding of how the media works, a commitment to sincerity and transparency, and a pledge of excellence without over-promising, the NBA’s MVP also became a PR MVP.
Bill Jasso, APR, Fellow PRSA, is professor of practice in public relations at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He has held senior communication management positions in both corporate and government. Twitter: @BillJasso.
Email: wgjasso at syr.edu