07 June 2011

What LeBron teaches us about winning and the medium v. message

I'm a fairly big sports fan, most of my friends know and accept this about me. After years of disliking professional basketball (go 'Cuse!), for the past two years I have been fascinated by the playoffs and now follow teams like the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks, and yes, the Miami Heat. I still hate the Lakers.

With Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight between the Mavs and the Heat, and in light of Miami's dominant performance in Game 3, I wanted to reflect a little bit on LeBron and just what precisely his "decision" has done to his career, sports and communication. Yes, communication.

I don't know him personally, so I have no idea if the hour-long special on ESPN was LeBron's choice or if he was advised to do it by his entourage. I do know that if his only motivation was to get some donations for the Boys and Girls Clubs, he could just have easily picked up the phone.

Instead, his hour-long press conference and his choice to take his talents to South Beach has become the defining event of this NBA season. At the start of the season when the Heat couldn't buy a basket and were hemorrhaging points, everyone--fans, sportscasters, Dan Gilbert--were content to smile smugly and talk about karma and the fact that just because you put three good players on one team it doesn't mean they'll play well together.

First of all, they didn't get three good players on one team, they got three GREAT players on that team (Okay, maybe two and a half. Bosh needs to be a little more consistent to be called great). And now, up three games to one in a best of seven series, a lot of the Heat's detractors have gone silent. Secondly, karma only works if the punishable act was malicious (at least, that's my definition), and despite everything that's been said about LeBron, I do not believe he left Cleveland as a way to stick it to the fans, the team, the city or heck, even all of Ohio. LeBron wants to win championships. Dan Gilbert had plenty of time to figure out how to get him the help he'd need to do that. (As a side note, Gilbert's comments following LeBron's decision were malicious and completely unprofessional, so I'd watch out for that karma, Danno.)

But more than a morality tale for sports, LeBron's decision and the way it was delivered have taught us in media and communications a very important lesson: the medium is just as important as the message. If LeBron had held a press conference, a quick one mind you, in the middle of the day, and delivered the same news would he have been as vilified as he is now? I'm guessing no. If he'd sent out a press release and allowed the Cleveland Plain-Dealer to break the news, would they have burned his jerseys? ... Okay, maybe they would have, but I'm not so certain it would have been as devastating to read about his choice to leave as it was to watch him deliver the news on live TV. A live interview on SportsCenter or Mike and Mike in the Morning would have been preferable to "The Decision."

Many pundits have speculated that even if LeBron and the Miami Heat win the NBA Championship this year, LeBron will still be considered the Big Bad Wolf of the basketball world (never mind the fact that he hasn't been accused of sexual assault, drunk driving or bringing a loaded gun to the stadium, you know, actual criminal behavior). The villain label really isn't fair, especially considering how LeBron has conducted himself this season. Yes, the pep rally in Miami right after the announcement was obnoxious, I'm not gonna lie, but since the actual business of playing basketball has begun, and even through the adversity of starting the season on a losing streak, LeBron has been forthright with the media, honest about his game play and contributions and much more approachable. Some of this can probably be credited to Dwayne Wade, LeBron's best friend and now teammate, who has always been open with the media and the fans.

So, is it true that LeBron can't win? Even if he actually does win, will that nullify his tarnished image in the public eye? If not, what can?

Possibly nothing except time. As with many badly delivered messages, time is often the only cure--time or another, even bigger scandal. However, in a 24-hour news cycle, when stations need to fill air time, they have no problem reminding people of LeBron's ego, especially as the Miami Heat start to really pour on, well, the heat, in the finals against the Mavericks.

Now, almost a year later, "The Decision" may simply serve as a cautionary lesson about the hubris of ego. But more importantly, it serves to remind us that it's not the message we had a problem with. LeBron was going to leave Cleveland, that was fact (and any Ohioan who thought differently was fooling themselves). But he didn't need to use a national, live TV event to tell the world and his hometown.

When crafting those media plans and most importantly, when managing a crisis, take a breath and consider how you're going to release your message. Who is the best person to speak to the public, employees or shareholders? And how should they get the word out?

Chances are you won't be faced with the choice between say, a press release and a nationally-televised event, but just in case, make sure you think it through before you make a decision.

I'm sure LeBron would agree.

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