Monday, July 27, 2009

Another PR lesson from Nike: don’t put yourself in the penalty box

Last week, we thought the story about the dunk heard (but not immediately seen) ‘round the world was finally over.

But it wasn’t – because one of the parties most (presumably) embarrassed by it, sportswear and equipment giant Nike, decided to volunteer for one more media lashing.

Some quick background: on July 6th, Xavier University sophomore Jordan Crawford “dunked on” NBA MVP LeBron James at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, Nike officials confiscated video footage (both James and the Skills Academy are sponsored by Nike) from two witnesses who were videotaping the pick-up game. There are conflicting reports as to what prompted that:

- some reports (including this one from ESPN) suggest that James instructed Nike officials to seize the tapes;
- others repeat Nike’s statement that it took the videos because they contravened its media policy.

Either way, it wasn’t Nike's greatest PR move. It made James look petty and vain, and made Nike’s PR machine look a little tone-deaf, if not behind-the-times: in this age of automatic uploads to YouTube, did Nike really think there wasn't at least one more video in the crowd? I'm frankly amazed we haven't seen video of the Nike officials taking the tapes.

Whereas the dunk provided a great opportunity polish James’ reputation as a sportsman, had he chosen to congratulate the student player on a nice dunk, the appearance of trying to sweep it under the rug created a PR problem that had mainstream media and bloggers alike gossiping about it for days.

Then, on July 22nd, the inevitable happened, and two more (unauthorized and, we have to assume, unknown to James and Nike) videos of the dunk came to light. Along with the highly-anticipated videos came a new round of mainstream media and web coverage, as everyone checked out the dunk and waded in as to its relative quality… as well as how badly the whole affair had reflected on LeBron James and Nike.

So… phew. It was finally over, and both LeBron and Nike could go back to what they do best, leaving this embarrassing little incident behind them.

But not quite.

This past Friday, Nike announced it was going to return the confiscated videos of the dunk to their owners.

A former boss of mine used to warn us against “putting ourselves in the penalty box” – that is, proactively doing things that would bring us bad PR. If you’re dealing with an issue that isn’t reflecting well on your organization, get rid of it – all of it – as quickly as you can, and move on. It’s not that different from the rules for getting out bad news, as I discussed in an earlier post about John Edwards’s extra-marital affair: tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it all. That approach will feed far fewer media stories than a drip, drip, drip approach, in which new details spawn new rounds of media coverage, speculation, and general discussion of how you’ve messed up over and over again.

Of course, I don’t know the background on Nike’s decision here – maybe I’m missing something. But surely if they planned to give the tapes back, or if there was even any latitude for them to give the tapes back, they could have done it two days earlier, when the other two unauthorized videos came out. That would have made the return of the videos a footnote in all the excitement about the dunk footage – as opposed to the catalyst for another round of media coverage of this less-than-shining moment in Nike's expensive sponsorship of LeBron James.

For the sake of posterity, here’s the dunk (from, not the Nike-confiscated video, which I haven’t yet found on YouTube). It comes about 35 seconds in, and is repeated in slow-mo around the 1:00 mark.

1 comment:

  1. Wilt Chamberlain sez that stuff like this used to happen to him all the time. The difference: YouTube.

    Good article!