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Witness: One Bad Year Of PR

Robert Chilver

He was a sports marketer’s dream client. An athletic superstar playing basketball for his hometown NBA team.  He said all the right things, stayed out of trouble and let his talents do the talking. Some called him the next Michael Jordan as awards and endorsements poured in.

No, this is not Chicago’s Derrick Rose.

Perhaps surprising to some, this was Lebron James just a year ago. But as you are probably aware, a lot has changed since then. It would be hard, in fact, to find a worse year in public relations/marketing management. That’s because there was no scandal that caused this change of public perception; only poor choices, poor statements and poor public relations tactics.

Oddly enough, it all started with an event Lebron and his management team thought was a strong PR initiative; announcing his decision on ESPN and having commercial revenue go to charity.  Instead, “The Decision” turned most of America against Lebron and his new team, the Miami Heat. The charity aspect was ignored. The event was perceived as an egotistical kick in the you-know-what to his hometown Cleveland, as well as the other teams he spurned.

The Miami Heat then made a poor public relations decision of their own, holding a massive celebration in their stadium to welcome the “Big 3” of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. During the event, Lebron spoke of an ensuing dynasty, bringing multiple championships to Miami. But what Miami fans saw as confidence, the rest of the nation saw as arrogance. This team was celebrating without having accomplished anything. What could have been marketed as perhaps the most exciting team to watch in NBA history, had instead become the most hated team in NBA history.

That sentiment only grew during the regular season as the team wondered aloud why there were hated (really, guys?). In the playoffs, it escalated as the Heat celebrated widely when winning each series. This week, the nation seemingly celebrated with Dallas as the Mavericks won the title over Miami. After the final game, Lebron made perhaps his worst PR decision yet, attacking his so-called “haters” by saying: “At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail … at the end of the day, tomorrow they have to wake up and have the same life that [they had] before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had today.”

So we wake up to a regular life and you get to be Lebron James? Not a great way to win over the public, or win endorsements, Lebron. Yes, he’s come out with an apology, saying he didn’t mean he was better than anyone else. But as most public relation and marketing professionals know when a crisis hits, the damage is already done.

It’s a chilling reminder that businesses must always be thinking about the consequences of their actions. Even if it leads to success, as Lebron will probably get his title eventually, businesses should be aware of how their actions will be perceived by the public. It only takes a few wrong moves to ruin years of hard work. Hiring an experienced public relations or marketing firm is one way to make sure you’re being steered in the right direction.

And if all else fails, you can always try to capitalize off the world’s hatred of Lebron James. It’s already worked for the Peoria Chiefs minor league baseball team and some 99 cent stores in Houston. So there you have it, from praised superstar to mocked villain. The worst year in PR history? I think we’re all Witnesses.