Sometimes Say and Do Nothing

ICangles Communications Post…

Today, when I was doing a little web surfing on the latest sports news I couldn’t help but read about an ESPN article on basketball star LeBron James. I couldn’t help but come across it because LeBron’s PR team had gotten ESPN to kill the story after it was posted. As a result instead of one forgettable ESPN online article that I amongst others would never have paid any attention to, there are now a multitude of articles about the pulled article. Also, because of the age of the Internet that pulled article still lives on other websites.

Although the intention was to bury it, the exact opposite was accomplished. Not only was more attention brought to the article, but so also was the added negativity of LeBron using his leverage and relationship with ESPN to kill bad press. Ironically, the story wasn’t actually all that negative, but that sure isn’t the impression now conveyed, i.e. if LeBron wanted to kill it the article must be bad.

LeBron is more than just a basketball player, he is a superstar and a sports brand onto himself. In a branding sense he is more a corporation than a person. That means all this controversy won’t just blow over. It impacts brand LeBron—not in a major way, but negatively and lasting. It detracts from the overall brand image and adds to an already running narrative of arrogance. This incident is a great example of when a PR team should do nothing (in fairness to whoever was giving PR advice to team LeBron he or she may very well have advised doing nothing). On the subject of doing nothing from a PR standpoint team LeBron served up another great example on that subject with The Decision. The media event on ESPN where LeBron publicly unveiled which new team he would be playing for was an event better off never held from a PR and branding perspective.

True The Decision did have many elements corporations crave–a major broadcast opportunity, domination of the headlines, not having to share the spotlight (in LeBron’s case with any of his new free agent teammates/partner corporations) and not least of all editorial control. But there was one little fact that team LeBron overlooked in orchestrating this event that made it the beginning of a negative narrative of arrogance, rather than the start of a successful rebranding of the Miami Heat Lebron James.

That little fact was there were a lot more losers than winners. On the media side there were a lot of sports reporters who were denied the access they wanted to LeBron partly because a news conference format wouldn’t have allowed team LeBron to control them and they immediately went after ESPN for selling out–a point ESPN’s own ombudsman largely acceded. Yet the real damning factor came in the form of basketball fans, as every one of them other than Miami Heat fans were losers. The Decision was a decision to reject every other city’s team and to directly reject the teams of New York, New Jersey, Chicago and of course the hometown that loved him Cincinnati. Creating an event that manages the feat of both  upsetting a majority of your media and global customer base is one better off not done.

Of course not all situations are alike. And when a negative news storing is coming out it is often tempting to say or do something. Sometimes taking action is the right step. But trying to get a factually accurate published article pulled or holding an event that puts the corporation above its customers is almost never the right step. On occasion even inaccuracies aren’t worth addressing if doing so just draws unwanted attention to a negative. Things get a bit murkier when a journalist wants a comment on a potentially negative article–a far more typical example. That brings me to my own personal example.

Some years back I got a call from a client that a reporter with a major news organization was asking for comment on a story they were writing involving accounting issues. The corporate PR person wanted to know whether a company spokesperson should participate. I didn’t have much more to go on than that. My advice was simple. If you don’t have anything to hide go ahead and speak with them and set the record straight, rather than trying to correct a misperception afterwards. But if potentially there is something substantively negative take a pass and don’t talk. They ended up not talking, which was a wise move as it turned out that reporter had a lot of information that would’ve resulted in an ambush interview of the worst kind and just made worse what turned out to be a pretty damaging article.

On the topic of not doing something I’ve also urged startup clients to cancel planned media launches of their companies until they had a viable product or similarly the push out of a product launch until specifications were at least finalized and ideally even an early customer could be leveraged.  In one instance a client wanted a separate company launch, product launch and first customer announcement. They hoped for more media attention by spreading out their news. But the result would have been the impact dilution of each announcement. It’s just one more instance when not doing something (in this instance multiple launches when there is only fodder for one) is the right move. Often you only get one bite at the media apple and it doesn’t pay to nibble.

All of this isn’t to say that doing nothing is usually the right move. Typically you want to engage with the media, and usually sooner is better than later. Not talking often means letting your rivals control the debate and shape your brand image. Sometimes you can even break the rules and get away with it. I’ve worked on positioning for a vaporware launch where with the help of a high profile customer and development partner impressive media coverage was garnered around the globe. However, every once in a while doing nothing is the right call.

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