Winning in the Court of Public Opinion

Posted on May 2, 2014 
Filed Under General

It’s a PR nightmare. Imagine your brand is under siege because one of your own uttered some repugnant remarks that found their way into the media and went viral.

All hell is breaking loose and the “talent” that has made your brand very rich and very popular is putting the squeeze on you to make amends or face serious consequences.

It was through this vortex that NBA Commissioner faced the media earlier this week to address the furor sparked by racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling during a private telephone conversation with Sterling’s girlfriend.

The NBA’s PR team must have breathed a sigh of relief following Silver’s presser, in which he banned Sterling from the NBA for life and fined him $2.5 million.

Silver also said he would urge the NBA’s board of governors (the other 29 owners) to force Sterling to sell the club.

The legal fallout will likely follow, with multiple reports now saying that Sterling, a divorce attorney by trade, lives for litigation.

But by taking swift action, Silver was able stop a radioactive leak that threatened to blow up the NBA brand.

Silver’s presentation conferences was a clinic in how communicators can cauterize a deep wound and get their brand back on track following a major derailment.

He provided takeaways for communicators who are grappling with controversy and need to provide counsel for managers at the top who have to deal with issues head-on to right the ship.

> A need for speed. A fast-moving controversy can only be met with a quick response. While there was some outcry that Silver should have acted sooner, the press conference was not five days after Sterling’s comments were revealed. People may pine for you to respond to a controversy virtually immediately, but you need to afford yourself some time to make sure the message is consistent and leaves no room for ambiguity (that the media will surely pounce on).

> Listen closely. As the Sterling controversy became the top story in the country last weekend, Silver met with NBA owners (who are his collective boss) to gauge their reaction. But by bringing down the hammer on Sterling, Silver also showed that he was also listening carefully to the court of public opinion and the general consensus that a slap on the wrist (or lawerly language) would not fly and probably make a terrible situation worse.

> Bring a touch of class. Silver helped to mitigate some of the raw emotion caused by Sterling’s remarks by apologizing to multiple audiences, including fans, active players, former players, coaches and partners. “To them, and pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell, and particularly Magic Johnson, I apologize,” Silver said. Well played.

> Don’t dance around any questions. In light of the white-hot glare of the media, dancing around the media’s questions is a no-win situation. Counsel that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”—as Silver did a couple of times during the press questions— to questions in which there is no definitive answer (and assure the reporter that the company will follow-up once it does have a definitive answer). This is a perfect example of the “authenticity” (that PR folks are constantly talking about).

> Do your homework. Try to anticipate any and all questions. For instance, during the presser Silver was asked if members of Mr. Sterling’s family, including his wife, Rochelle, will be allowed to remain in an ownership or managerial position in the league. Silver emphatically said there have been no decisions and that the  “no,” and that the ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling’s conduct only.

The rub is to convince managers to adopt some of these lessons. If nothing else, keep the video of Silver press conference handy. You never know when you might need it.

As a PR pro, what would you add to the list above?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

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