Donald Sterling Put the Whole NBA in Crisis Mode. What if You Were His Communications Pro?

Stiviano (left) and Sterling (right)
Stiviano (far left) and Sterling (right) at a Clippers game.

It's a PR person's worst nightmare.

It's Friday night and you're trying to unwind after a long, tiring week when you get a frantic phone call—your boss, or, worse, your boss's boss's boss, is at the center of a national scandal. You know people both inside and outside of your organization are going to be very, very angry. What do you do?

That was the case this past Friday, when TMZ released an audio recording purportedly of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, about a picture she took with NBA legend Magic Johnson and posted to her Instagram account.

By this point, Sterling has endured a weekend being derided by members of his own team, the media, and even President Obama. His comments have become one of the country's biggest news stories, overshadowing what has been a remarkable first round of the NBA playoffs, and he has put the entire league in crisis management mode.

For professional communicators, what do you do when the head of your organization lands in hot water?

Richard Levick, chairman-CEO of Levick and co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, explains that technology has changed the rules when it comes to corporate chieftains thinking they can say anything. "The world has changed radically," Levick says, "and what the CEO might say in the hallway now gets tweeted."

That's particularly true in the example of Sterling, as people have alleged that he is a racist for years. If the tape is verified to contain Sterling's voice, Levick's warning about how new technology has the power to expose corporate leaders will be particularly fitting, as a digital recording of a conversation about an Instagram picture will have finally exposed Sterling to nationwide ridicule.

While the crisis and reputation management boat has almost definitely sailed for Sterling and the Clippers PR team, there are still some valuable lessons to learn from how this story has played out. Levick recommends that PR execs follow "Seven Survival Strategies When the CEO Goes Rogue."

  1. Determine the severity of the sin. There are a thousand “shades of grey” and every case is different, but the first question the company must ask itself, Levick says, is: “Can the CEO regain the trust of our consumers and stakeholders?”
  2. Determine the Investor Relations (IR) response. Private companies usually have fewer audiences so there is more latitude. Public companies have an audience of shareholders to cater to, and their concerns need to be gauged and addressed by the board.
  3. Determine whether the CEO’s brand can be distanced from that of the company. If the two can be reasonably separated, they should be via statements that the sin does not reflect the company’s values. If they can’t, a much more aggressive response is necessary.
  4. Determine how the sin relates to the company’s brand. The same sin can be judged differently among different audiences, says Levick.
  5. Determine how the sin’s timing affects its impact. Timing is everything—and sometimes demands a more aggressive response than would normally be called for.
  6. Determine the cost/benefit of sticking with an embattled CEO. Sometimes, a CEO is so visionary and essential to success that the company can afford to take the temporary reputation hit that comes with standing by him or her, according to Levick.
  7. Determine how much goodwill resides in the CEO’s trust bank. Has the CEO built up enough credibility and trust to be given the benefit of the doubt for one misstep.

Follow Brian Greene: @bwilliamgreene

  • @DeliciaDialog

    Very interesting assessment tactics on this issue from Richard Levick. Maybe we should also consider:
    a) What’s the possibility of another similar or worse transgression by the CEO? In this particular instance, Mr. Sterling has been reported to be a repeat offender. Do we want to deal with another incident down the road? #DonaldSterling
    b) How do other stakeholders feel about the issue? Investors aside, Clippers players demonstrated their feelings very clearly. Employees are affected in these situations as well. Morale inevitably suffers.
    c) CEO’s behavior aside – how would the public react to the organization’s response to a “rogue” CEO. I suspect the NBA would have been in for a public battering had they done one iota less.

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