Friday, July 16, 2010

LeBron James Free Agency Announcement: The UItimate PR Case Study

For the first time in over two decades, I went to a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this year. I really understood why chaotic situations are likened to three ring circuses. There's so much to see, experience and take in that it's rather overwhelming. I felt this way recently with the free agency announcement of LeBron James. In this case, the fans, media and sports analysts were dealing with what is now being called the "spectacle" of his behavior. I'm sure it will be used as a great PR case study for years to come.

So many elements of what we teach PR students are present in this situation. However, I think we have to start first with why the announcement was rare. Gregory James explains the conventional way a decision is made. Usually, the player calls his former team to announce the decision and offers a thank you to the team owner and then a press release is issued announcing the decision. In this case, "The Decision" was much more than a press release. It was a full-blown television show with hours of build up from ESPN sports analysts, blog posts and traditional media. If someone were to figure out the AQV related to LeBron's announcement, I would dare say it would be in the tens of millions.

"The Decision" is where most of the controversy hovers. Yet, you should know it wasn't LeBron's idea to make the announcement this way. It was that of respected sportscaster Jim Gray, who now is under criticism along with LeBron for the special. The question is was it too much? Everyone has an opinion, and I do mean everyone. The New York Times even asked teenagers what they thought of it, and let me tell you, these are some opinionated youth. Some even throw around the idea that it was a "publicity stunt." The special resulted in what can now only be politely described as a stain on LeBron's image, which was put there by disgruntled fans and Cleveland Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert.

Unhappy fans took to the streets throwing jerseys in trashcans and creating large and small "Lebronfires." Dan wrote an open letter to his fans. It was not a polite letter, and he even calls LeBron names. It was not a good PR move. I wonder if his PR staff tried to stop him? Did they think he would gain the respect of his fans? Was it purely personal? Was it business? Is his PR team working on a crisis comm plan now to address the angry fans who might be ready to sue him if he doesn't make good on his guarantee of a championship?

Isn't this one of the many things we teach students not to do? You never over promise your stakeholders, you never respond when you are angry and you never act without thinking of the consequences or long term effects. For Dan, the immediate consequence was a $100,000 fine from NBA Commissioner David Stern. My guess is there will be much more his PR team and he will deal with in the future.

The criticism didn't end with "The Decision." The next day there was a live event for Miami Heat fans. It was elaborate to say the least. One newscaster called it a WWE-like scene. For students and PR professionals, you have to wonder about the timeline. One look at the videos associated with the event, and you can see all of the pieces needed to put on the event. With the new slogan (Yes. We. Did.), promotions, event logistics, videos, talent booking and even alerting the adoring fans in attendance, it's hard to believe it all happened in a day. Savvy PR folks must know they either knew in advance or took a huge gamble in the planing of the event. If I were to guess if they knew in advance of the morning of "The Decision," than I'd say "Yes. They. Did."

For me, PR professionals, late night television hosts, sports analysts, jokesters and others, LeBron's announcement will leave us talking for a long, long time. Was it a brilliant idea that took King James' public image to the next level, or was it just bad behavior from a "narcissistic" and "egotistical" overpaid athlete? You decide.


  1. "The Decision" was possibly one of the biggest wastes of time in American sports history rather than a PR blunder. "The Decision" will soon be forgotten if the Miami Heat dominates with their stacked roster. Lebron's brand was built by phenominal basketball skills, not his off the court handlings. I will say that he probably has lost close to all his fan base in the state of Ohio, but any Lebron fan outside the state of Ohio will soon forget. At the start of the season his jersy will continue to be be a top seller, and his King James brand will sell just as much if not more. "The Descision" didn't cause any damage to his image that a ally hoop slam dunk can't fix.

  2. I believe that the Lebron James team underestimated the backlash they would encounter. It seems their intent was to use the obvious publicity that was mounting to positively impact the Boys and Girls Club of Akron, however, their good deed was overshadowed by their lack of forethought. It seems to me, as an obvious outsider, that they should have anticipated the reaction of Cleveland fans and used a more tactful and traditional method of letting the public know what his intentions were.

    That being said, James legacy will forever be tarnished by this misjudgement. No one will ever view him as a great like Michael Jordon or Kobe Bryant and I think that is the biggest loss of all.

    Nicole Bailey

  3. I agree with this post for the most part. LeBron is an opportunist. His ego played a major role in the way that he presented his "Decision". I think the decision could be considered a modern day slave trade, with LeBron being the prized “field-hand”. ESPN capitalized off of his “Decision” and LeBron was able to relish in his narcissism.

    As far as Dan Gilbert is concern, I think that he needs to be penalized even more. He acted as if the city of Cleveland was LeBron’s plantation and he was master. His comments were totally inappropriate and they simply made him look like a bitter, money hungry owner.

  4. The choice that Lebron James made to join the Miami Heat team was a decision that he made in order to advance his basketball career to the next level as a champion. Everyone knows that if you are not a champion unless you have a ring, no matter how many slam dunks, 3-pointer shots, or steals you have, a championship ring makes you matter and go down in history forever.

    The public event in which lebron made of his announcement to join the miami heat team, in my opinion, was a beautiful strategy that James' PR people created. It was a way to make him seem bigger than he was and I believe that it has catapulted him to a whole other level because if you hated what he did or loved what he did WE ALL WERE TALKING ABOUT HIM. I also believe that his PR people made him make the choice of having all the proceeds to the conference go to charity. I dont believe that was the initial idea for the press conference but his PR team gave him the idea to make it so, so that he would seem like a "giver" despite his "selfish" untraditional way of announcing his team change.

    -Kimberley Camps-

  5. Well support LeBron a 100% is he move,because he is one of the in the NBA right now. I believe that it was a difficult choice for him to make. Some feel as if he was wrong for moving to a team that already has two power houses. I just think Lebron just wants to win.
    With Lebron this team will now be a dynamic team with such star players, and I can't wait to see what they are going to do. The Laker's need to work harder next year because they are going down. Miami Heat is very lucky to have him.

    The public event that Lebron had going on was a very good strategy. Everyone was buzzing and talking about Lebron and his decision. So his PR people got what they wanted. I have a feeling that fans will be talking about this for a long time..