Friday, May 16, 2014

A Silver Lining to the Sterling Saga...

New Harbor Group is often asked to help a new client “deal with a potential problem.”   Many times, that “potential problem” is actually a significant problem and it’s time for some crisis management.   For those who haven’t been through one, managing a crisis isn’t just about how you react, but it’s also about how prepared you are for when one strikes.    

Hopefully, the next crises you or your company faces won’t be as potentially devastating as the one encountered by Adam Silver just a few months into his new job.   When Silver took over as the NBA Commissioner earlier this year, he probably never imagined that a member of his Board of Governors would be caught on tape delivering a racist diatribe (apparently a regular occurrence by some accounts).  Perhaps Silver knew beforehand that the LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, may have been a racist, but once Sterling’s rant hit the airwaves Mr. Silver was thrust into one of the League’s most serious and potentially damaging public relations incidents of all time.   

How Silver responded to the crisis would not only define his legacy as the League commissioner, but also impact the reputation of the League for years to come.

As most know by now, Mr. Silver responded swiftly, decisively, and effectively.  Not only did he decide to dole out the harshest possible penalty possible, but he was quick to offer a sincere apology, delivered a home run of a press conference, and even found himself looking like, something of a hero.   

What are some of the most important take ways you can learn from the Commish?
  1. Get the Facts:  Or as many of them as possible, as quickly as you can.   Silver’s first move was to authenticate the tape.  Once he knew it was in fact Sterling’s voice, he knew he had to act.

  2. Talk to Your Partners:  No one likes surprises, most importantly your key stakeholders.  One of Silver’s best moments in his press conference was deflecting a question asking if Mr. Sterling could remain an absentee owner if the Board of Governors didn’t force a sale.   Silver’s response: “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.”  Also to his credit, Silver was also in communication with several players, coaches and former players throughout his decision making process, likely gauging their reaction to different scenarios.

  3. Take Bold Action:  Mr. Silver weighed the pros and cons of taking big or little action, and perhaps even against some legal advice, he went big.  Whether Sterling can be forced to sell the team or not doesn’t really matter at this point.  Mr. Silver put his personal stamp of his new office on it by taking authoritative action.

  4. Get Out There:  Just three days after TMZ released its tape of Mr. Sterling, the Commissioner was holding a press conference in Manhattan to announce his decision.   It was pertinent as more and more stories were already percolating about Mr. Sterling’s racist history, more celebrities and athletes were urging protests, and the focus on the NBA playoffs was being seriously diluted.    (Candidly, 72 hours is a bit longer than we recommend waiting to respond, but Mr. Silver benefited from the story breaking on a Saturday.  Opting for a Tuesday presser gave his decision more attention than doing it on Sunday or first thing Monday.  The extra 24 hours was a gamble, but it paid off for him because he took the right action against Mr. Sterling.)

  5. Apologize:  After only being on the job for three months, Mr. Silver could have legitimately claimed non-culpability.  Fortunately, he did not.  He apologized for the comments made by Donald Sterling, expressed a deep sense of sympathy for those hurt by his comments, and displayed a genuine recognition of the time it will take to rectify this issue with the fanbase, sponsors and larger basketball community. 

  6. Hire the Experts Ahead of Time:  Probably the most important point of all - don’t wait until the emergency is upon you to have your crisis communications team in place.    One of Mr. Silver’s first calls upon hearing about the release of the Sterling tape, was to his crisis communications consultant who had been counseling the NBA for years.   
When a catastrophe hits, you want a person in place that knows you and you trust.   You don’t have time to look for one or second-guess their advice.   You need someone that can help you navigate the storm and help you defuse the situation.  

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