It’s instinctive. Whenever we see a crisis – from Paula Dean to Carnival Cruise Lines to Target Corporation to a West Virginia chemical company – the Vehr Communications staff can’t help but discuss with each other what we would do if called in to provide crisis communications counsel.
And so it is with Donald Sterling. And the National Basketball Association (NBA). Both had to manage crises this week.
The Los Angeles Clippers owner, in a well-documented audio tape, made horrific racist statements to his girlfriend. On Tuesday afternoon, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that Sterling was banned for life from the league and his team, fined the league maximum of $2.5 million and that Silver would encourage owners to vote to require that Sterling sell his team.
When brought in to a crisis situation, the role of an agency is to act quickly, gather facts, identify targeted audiences, draft key messages and help strategize on how to best handle communications internally and externally. In the NBA’s case, it also had to resolve what kind of actions it would take against Sterling.
When legalities are involved, we recommend legal and communications teams work closely together. The NBA clearly did this.
Silver and the league came off well Tuesday. Silver levied the harshest possible penalties. The league did its homework, investigated, talked to Sterling and league constituents, and learned what kind of punishment it could hand out legally. It communicated the day before that it would make an announcement Tuesday; all eyes were on the new commissioner.
During his news conference, Silver answered all questions in a concise manner, rarely offering any more than what was required to respond to a reporter. When he could not answer, he said so. His face was stoic, if not, at times, hurt and angered. He showed remorse. He showed respect and even apologized. He was prepared for difficult questions. He did well.
For Sterling, it’s doubtful any type of communications counsel will help manage his reputation. He will forever be tainted, as many have before him (See Schott, Marge, and The Greek, Jimmy).
An 80-year-old zebra won’t change his stripes. But he should show the willingness to say he will try. Oh, and he should be more careful in selecting his future girlfriends. That’s not communications counsel; just a little friendly advice.
Often times, it’s the reaction to a crisis that gets individuals and companies in more trouble than the issue itself. Those who deny, hide, refuse to accept responsibility and get defensive only intensify the situation.
To de-escalate a crisis, you need a strong and decisive communications strategy. Be proactive. Get external counsel. Avoid news-making actions or statements that will aggravate the crisis. And prepare for the fallout.
The goal for the NBA, of course, is not to simply de-escalate the crisis, but to defend its reputation, protect its brand and to fulfill its promises to sponsors, fans, athletes, employers and more.
The first step was in the right direction. But the crisis management did not end after Tuesday’s announcement. In some ways, it is just beginning.