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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When Bridges Burn Themselves

Much has been said and written about the negative PR hit LeBron James took with his one-hour ESPN special aptly entitled, “The Decision.” I’m not in the camp of public relations pundits that believe “The Decision” was a PR fiasco or the public demise of his career. To the contrary, I believed it then and to some degree even now to have been a PR coup.

What if someone told you that you could get your client or organization on a major network for a one-hour special to announce a huge decision involving your brand, and your company or client would be paid millions for participating? Add to that scenario that said major network would throw its entire marketing muscle behind promoting the special, the buzz would dominate weeks of news coverage (more than 3-4 years worth of advertising), and the money your company or client received would be donated to the worthiest of charities making the organization appear to be the best of corporate citizens.

Let’s also say that somehow this dream opportunity generated some populous negative publicity due to the perception about how it was conducted, but in actuality it didn’t cost you any sales. In fact, because of this decision, it gained you a slew of new sales in a new untapped market (i.e. Miami). And also because of this business decision your client or company is now positioned to become one of the foremost brands in your industry as a result of “projected” successes.

Ten times out of ten, you’d sign up for that deal and would probably earn yourself a nice promotion and/or a fat bonus. Well this unbelievable scenario actually did happen when King James wielded the power he achieved through basketball stardom to do everything I previously mentioned. Unfortunately, the dominate perception of the events that unfolded was that this blew up in LeBron James’ face and was a public relations nightmare on scale with that of the BP Oil Spill.

Of course much of the “this is the worst thing since O.J. Simpson talk” was driven by the sports illuminati, media outlets, the PR punditry and lastly the City of Cleveland led by the carpetbagger owner of the Cavaliers Dan Gilbert. But it’s the City of Cleveland and Cav’s owner Dan Gilbert that really got my attention.

I can understand the disappointment and the emotions both must have felt when LeBron famously announced that he would be “taking his basketball talents to South Beach,” but what happened following the decision is the stuff of legend and probably unprecedented in sports history. Mr. Gilbert, who obviously subscribed to the “Scorched Earth” doctrine, decided he would eviscerate a former employee in a very public and lowbrow way.

I won’t go into the contents of Gilbert’s letter because honestly, I find them to be despicable and beneath an owner of a major sports franchise. But let’s strip away the sports aspect of the situation and what do we have – a top producing employee that was in good standing with management, who decided to pursue a career opportunity with another company and waited until the other company hired him before he told his current employer. This kind of thing happens every day and most employers are sad to see the employee leave, but they understand that this is the nature of business.

It would’ve been very beneficial to the City of Cleveland if Dan Gilbert was aware of this fact. By taking the route that he did, compounded by the asinine behavior of Clevelanders (including the jersey burnings and the tacky response video) Cleveland has did its best to ensure that no top tier talent would ever want to come to that team willingly and risk being burned in effigy if they ever parted ways.

In watching the Cleveland Cavaliers incident play out it reminded me of once upon a time when I worked for an organization that obviously went to the same business school that Dan Gilbert attended. Every time an employee left to advance their career elsewhere or improve upon their quality of life, this employer would diminish that employee’s contribution to the company, belittle their abilities, mark them as persona non grata and threaten current employees from fraternizing with the ex-employee.

While I was working at this company, I never subscribed to their philosophy regarding ex-employees. Beyond being a disturbingly juvenile practice, I found it to be shortsighted from a business standpoint and bad organizational PR. Ex-employees are fertile ground for new business and if they left in good will, they can become some of the best cheerleaders when it comes to recruitment. Take the opposite approach, which this particular company and the Cavalier leadership did, and risk having top talent shun working for your organization.

Being a man and a grown up as well as huge sports fan, I tried to put myself in shoes of Cavalier fans. What if Ray Lewis left the Baltimore Ravens to go play for the Dallas Cowboys (he once contemplated such a thing) – in the words of James, what should I do? The answer was easy. I’d be mad as hell that he left my beloved Ravens for alleged greener pastures, but I’d be thankful for the time our team had him and he made us a contender. I would continue to root for him the individual and respect his game.

But then again that’s just me.