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.