The Summer of LeBron: There is Such Thing as Bad Publicity

The CoverTell me LeBron isn’t pointing to his flexed bicep on the cover of the current GQ. That’s actually not possible, is it? Not given the PR mess that this summer has been for him. No way the self-appointed king is actually posing is such a predictable, been done 1000 times before, indulgent pose like that, is he?

Indeed he is.

I’ve sat quietly this summer on this issue for several reasons. First because although I don’t know LeBron, I know some of the people around him. Good people, smart people. I also know there is nothing easier (or more annoying) than being a Monday morning quarterback. It is easy to second guess, especially when your competitor is involved. However the GQ cover put it over the top for me, and I’ve got to get this off my chest.

First off, the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is garbage. Irish author Brendan Behan said it back in the mid-20th century. Behan may have been an author but he was no publicist. Anyone who has done his homework in PR knows that nothing is further from the truth. Images take years to build and moments to destroy. Ask Tiger Woods, or Mel Gibson, or Brittany Spears, or Ben Roethlisberger. One minute you are on top, the next you are the butt of Leno’s latest monologue. And very rarely can you ever bring it around again.

Which has had me thinking: what were they thinking? The GQ story really sheds light on the whole process, and I recommend it highly. The simple answer is: I don’t think they were. It seems they knew the importance of the decision and simply decided to make a very big splash with their announcement.

We have witnessed two mammoth falls from grace in the world of sports in less than 12 months. I’d ask LeBron the same question I would ask Tiger: “What was the goal?”. If Tiger’s goal was to elicit some compassion, he should have tried something other than a scripted, staged press conference. Oprah was a no-brainer. In LeBron’s case, I still can’t figure out what the goal was. I end up where most other people are, thinking it was just an narcissistic fun fest without any concern for what the fallout might be.

You gotta give him credit. He gave New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the state of Ohio the finger all at once. That’s something like 30 million people. It isn’t easy to move the needle like that. And this is not just my opinion. LeBron’s Davie-Brown Index score took a nosedive this summer. He’s popular in Miami, but basketball enemy #1 everywhere else.

And not only was “The Decision” a terrible decision, but the aftermath was even more epic. Dan Gilbert’s open letter in which he called LeBron a deserter and a coward is something I’ve never seen in all my years in sports marketing. Next, the NBA legends jumped on board, led predictably by Charles Barkley. But others joined in, allegedly (according to Sir Charles) MJ included. Then LeBron placed a full page ad in the Akron Beacon Journal in which he didn’t mention the city of Cleveland. The summer closed with the GQ bicep cover.

Bruce Arthur summed public sentiment in the National Post on July 16, 2010: http://www.nationalpost.com/LeBron+goes+from+king+jester/3288295/story.html

Let me make one point clear: I am rooting for LeBron. A rising tide floats all boats, and the league needs LeBron. So anyone who thinks this is sour grapes because BDA doesn’t rep him is off. And of course he was totally entitled to leave Cleveland for Miami. That’s not the issue. I’m irked because too many people think marketing and PR is child’s play. It is not. These are skills like any other, and it takes years of experience to hone them. Excellent marketers and publicists not only have great instinct, but they have YEARS of experience. They’ve been through the fires, and they know what to expect. An experienced marketer should have asked LeBron “What is our goal?”. The goal could only have been set once his decision was made. An ESPN special might have been a good idea if he was staying in Cleveland. His image has always been about loyalty, and that scenario would have set that image in stone. Once he decided he was going to Miami, the goal should have been to protect his popularity, and to minimize the damage in Cleveland, New York, Chicago and LA. That could not have been done with an ESPN special. A jump to Miami (or in LeBron’s words, “South Beach”) was only going to anger people outside of Miami, so the best option would have been a modest press release (see: Kevin Durant). LeBron gets plenty of exposure, so free air time on ESPN should not have been that tempting. But it was. As was attendance at USA Basketball’s game in Madison Square Garden (where LeBron attended but tried to go low key), as was taking the bait on Twitter, as was the unthinkable GQ cover.

Indeed sometimes there is such thing as bad publicity. You just need experienced people to tell you what it is. And when it comes along, you need to simply say no.

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About Bill Sanders

SVP of Personal Brand Management at PMK*BNC. Helping icons from all walks of life to connect with their fans and monetize their brands.
This entry was posted in Athlete marketability, Athlete Marketing, LeBron James, Marketing, PR, Sports Business, Sports Marketing, Tiger Woods. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Summer of LeBron: There is Such Thing as Bad Publicity

  1. John B. says:

    Every time I hear LeBron say or do something stupid, I think of your well-written piece about LeBron’s bad publicity from last year (I wanted to come back and refresh my mind about what you wrote). Looks like he hasn’t learned much since then. Just a few days ago, he and Wade were involved in “Cough-gate,” then last night he said the following that has the radio talk shows and Internet blazin’:

    “At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail – at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today …

    “They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.”

    I took it, like many others, that everyone who is critical of him has a life that sucks compared to his. If I owned a team, I wouldn’t want to trade for this guy. He’s a walking P.R. disaster. And after he left Cleveland, it came out how disrespectful he was to management, getting away with all kinds of shenanigans (i.e., dancing with his teammates in pre-game introductions more than any other tema does), and no one was brave enough to stand up to him and call him on all that he was getting away with.

    I predict after the next CBA is finalized, the chances of LeBron getting traded from the Heat is very high. Perhaps a trade with Orlando for Dwight Howard so Orlando can get something for him before he bolts.

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