In most cities, a sports star leaving to join another team wouldn’t quite reach the level of crisis. No doubt, the world has countless far more serious and urgent problems.
But Cleveland’s a little different than most cities. Egos are a bit more fragile here after decades of job loss, population decline, environmental damage, and not to mention sports ineptitude – or so it seems to this (humble) outsider who first moved to Cleveland about a decade ago.
So after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ drubbing yet again at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in June, coupled with LeBron James’ impending free agency, thing were looking pretty bad for Cleveland. Despite hailing from nearby Akron and enjoying close ties with the local community, LeBron looked likely to depart Cleveland for a sexier, more glamourous destination, leaving the locals he left in his wake feeling abandoned and forgotten.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. But to LeBron’s credit, he learned from a past mistake, and let Cleveland fans down a little easier this time, while simultaneously providing a lesson on crisis communications.
We’ve seen this movie before
The date of “The Decision” by James – July 8, 2010 – is one that lives in Cleveland sports infamy. On that night, the then-25-year-old who is perhaps the greatest sports star the city has ever known crushed his hometown fans by announcing on live TV his intention to “take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” Next came the reaction. A city mourned, jerseys were burned, insults were hurled, and one melodramatic fan called it “the worst day of my life.”
Later that night, Cavaliers Owner Dan Gilbert hastily published a scathing open letter notoriously printed in comic sans font excoriating James for a “several-day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special.” Illustrating that Gilbert’s PR team had ready access to a thesaurus, the irate owner peppered his letter with several enjoyable descriptions of James and his decision, including “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness,” “shocking act of disloyalty,” and “heartless and callous action.”
To be clear, the majority of Cleveland fans weren’t angry at James for signing with Miami; they were upset by the “needless pain” he inflicted on the city for the spectacle of “The Decision,” which I recall one commentator comparing to a newly minted millionaire going on national tv to tell his high-school sweetheart he’s dumping her to move in with a supermodel.
Indeed, players change teams all the time (LeBron has now done it three times) “but no player has ever done it with the pomp, phoniness, pseudo-humility, and rehearsed innocence” as James, as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist correctly observed. That’s what understandably perturbed Cleveland fans, and later provided James with an opportunity to show growth in his style of public communication.
A second chance
After James spent four seasons in Miami and won two championships while making the NBA Finals every year, in 2014 he did what was once unthinkable. He mended fences (kind of) with Gilbert, rejoined the Cavs and led the city to its first major professional sports championship since 1964.
Then James broke Cleveland’s heart all over again. On July 1, 2018, the now-33-year-old James announced he was leaving the Cavaliers once more, having signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But this time it was different – no self-serving, nationally televised special; no week-long buildup of drama and, thankfully, no jersey burnings or lamentations about the worst day of fans’ lives. James and his advisors simply delivered the news in 36-word press release:
LeBron James, four time NBA MVP, three time NBA finals MVP, fourteen time NBA All Star, and two time Olympic gold medalist has agreed to a four year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
While unnecessarily trumpeting his major accomplishments on the court isn’t the height of modesty, James deserves credit for learning from his mistakes and rolling out his latest “decision” in a far more muted, low-key fashion.
And that brings us to what we can learn from James in crisis communications: Be brief, take responsibility, get to the point and don’t sugarcoat things.
While this is a lesson that apparently took James eight years to learn, healthcare organizations can learn from his mistakes by never committing them in the first place.
And it’s probably best to avoid ever proclaiming that you’re taking your talents anywhere.