Not since Tiger Woods' late night car accident last Thanksgiving have we had so many phone calls and emails asking our opinion. Now, the calls are about LeBron James' decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and go to the Miami Heat. From our perspective as crisis communications specialists, here's our take.
Perhaps it was inevitable that LeBron James would become a Villain in Cleveland if he signed with another team. But it wasn't simply his decision to leave Cleveland that was so egregious – it was the way he communicated that decision.
The crisis communications question under consideration is this: given his decision to leave Cleveland, did he have to become a Villain in the entire sports world? We think not.
From the moment the Cavs signed LeBron, his place in our hearts has been about more than his phenomenal basketball skills. We all cheered this young African-American who grew up in the Akron housing projects and yet seemed to have such poise about him.
He was the embodiment of the American dream; an intelligent, gifted and very wealthy success story. And, let’s face it -- he represented the best chance in years to bring a championship to Cleveland.
We liked LeBron – or at least the image that we thought was LeBron. So when he strung us along for months and refused to say where he would play next year, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. Surely he wouldn't abandon his home and his loyal fans, would he?
It was when we learned about the plans for a special on ESPN that everything changed. There was no explanation for that publicity stunt except for his enormous ego. You could sense the tide shifting. He’s not who we think he is. He’s been manipulating us into believing the hype. He’s just like all the other athletes out there. We felt used and abused.
The announcement of the ESPN program caused many to look back at LeBron’s actions over the previous few months in a different light. The way he played against Boston. His failure to return phone calls to Dan Gilbert after the Cavs lost. Making the NBA teams come to Cleveland to court him.
The ESPN special was so over the top, it was embarrassing. He hired someone to interview him on national TV where he would not have to look anyone in the eye or answer tough questions. He chose the location – far from Cleveland, far from his teammates, coaches and fans.
And then, he shamelessly used a group of young children for his backdrop. What an example he set for those boys and girls! Please come and witness my betrayal. With that publicity stunt, LeBron James abruptly ended 10+ years of hero-worshipping media and fan adulation.
If you’re a regular reader of our Crisis Comm E-Newsletters, you know our mantra: “Tell the truth. Tell it all. Tell it first.”
But we also advise our clients to tell bad news first to those who will be most affected and, if at all possible, tell them in person, face to face. If you’re closing a plant, tell the workers who will lose their jobs. If one of your doctors harmed a patient, tell the family in person.
Have the courage to look the person in the eye and say you’re sorry and answer their questions. You owe them that much.
Instead, LeBron James chose to wear the Villain's crown in what we call the "3-V framework" (a narrative device commonly used by the media, featuring a Villain, Victim and Vindicator).
Again, did it have to end this way? Consider, for a moment, what Clevelanders and sports fans across the world might be saying today if he had simply told the truth, told it all and told it first – with class and dignity.
What if LeBron had treated the Cavs fairly and with respect, announcing in Cleveland -- in person -- that he would not be returning, personally thanking the fans, owner and team? He could have announced his decision to join the Heat and then, like every other athlete who’s done this, answered questions from the media.
We would still have been disappointed in his decision, but hey, we'd still like him. Had he handled his free agency with class and dignity, how could we begrudge this 25-year-old the right to determine his own destiny.
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