A Not So Sterling Performance

Good crisis communications can aid in reputation recovery

Last week was another bad one for Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, who has been banned for life from the NBA for his impolitic remarks about African Americans. It is more than evident at this point that Sterling doesn’t have anyone around him offering sound counsel – either that, or he is doing a remarkable job ignoring it.

The week began with a bizarre, ill-advised interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in which the 82-year-old Sterling attempted to apologize for his “stupid, insensitive” remarks, which he said he was baited into making by V. Stiviano, the person who allegedly taped their conversation. He then made a whiplash pivot to attack NBA great Magic Johnson, who Sterling said “has the AIDS” and has never done anything for the inner city. Both comments are stunningly false…and just plain stunning.

Then, Sterling ended the week with the much anticipated move of his attorneys sending a letter to NBA executives saying he refuses to pay the $2.5 million fine levied by NBA commissioner Silver, and that Sterling will fight his lifetime ban from the NBA. Legal experts say that this is a fool’s errand on the part of Sterling, and that the NBA will ultimately prevail. Oh, and the Clippers lost to Oklahoma City in the NBA playoffs.

As Paul Newman offered in the film Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Appreciating that the comments Sterling made about black Americans are reprehensible, the moment will certainly stand as a long time case study for what NOT to do in these circumstances.

This is one of those moments where crisis and reputation management converge. Often seen as two separate disciplines in our business, how one recovers from a crisis can actually have a positive impact on the immediate issue and provide a solid foundation for reputational recovery. Getting it right usually means acknowledging the mistake, issuing a sincere apology, providing a remedy and promoting the activities to fix the problem through a variety of media platforms and relevant influencers. Think BP or the recent Target data breach. Getting it wrong usually means offering halfhearted apologies (if at all), continuing to display the same negative behavior and poorly handling the media. Think Paula Deen or, more recently, Nevada rancher Clive Bundy.

We know that Sterling has received a wide range of unsolicited advice from people since this crisis developed, including the likes of Spike Lee, LeBron James and of course many a professional communicator. Here is what VOX Global has to offer:

First, stop talking. The CNN interview was an absolute train wreck for many reasons. Not only was Sterling clearly not prepared for the conversation, but he also didn’t seek professional counsel before taking it on. CNN’s Cooper reported only “two friends” sitting on the side during the interview. If an individual or corporation decides to speak publicly in the heat of a crisis, there can be no shortage of preparation. That prep includes the need to…

Understand your objectives. Understand what you plan to say, why you plan to say it and the audiences you are speaking to. In the context of a broad national interview, there are multiple audiences, each of which has the potential to influence the others. Sterling may have been speaking mainly to the league’s team owners who will soon decide his fate, but other audiences include the NBA commissioner, the players, the fans and the general public, all of whom will also seek to persuade the owners. With that in mind you also need to…

Decide (quickly) how to demonstrate contrition. As we mentioned, media is one way to respond to a crisis, but key influencers will have some impact on public opinion and, by extension, the NBA owners as well. Help these influencers, and yourself, by performing some act of contrition that allows them to credibly ask for redemption on your behalf with key audiences, including the commissioner and the owners. There are some who believe Sterling was wronged because he was taped speaking in his own home. Others say a penalty may have been warranted, but that Silver was too heavy handed. It’s hard for supporters to defend you if, rather than professing an understanding of your actions, contrition for them and a willingness to change, you continue to lash out at others.

Only after Sterling has done these things can he even begin to think about speaking publicly on this issue again. Until then, his best bet is to work with experts who will help him issue a public statement of contrition, accept full responsibility for all of his inappropriate behavior and coordinate credible allies who can help re-focus the public debate from Sterling to illegally taped private conversations, penalty precedents, legal rights of owners and other policy-related issues for which there are numerous points of view.

Even with all of that, because of the way this situation has been handled to date,  Donald Sterling’s reputation is likely  damaged for good.

-###-

Corey Ealons is a VOX Global Senior Vice President and director of the Media Relations Practice Group

Carey Tarbell is a VOX Global Senior Partner and director of the Crisis Communications and Reputation Management Practice Group

 

Tagged In

Crisis, Media Relations

A Not So Sterling Performance

Good crisis communications can aid in reputation recovery
Last week was another bad one for Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, who has been banned for life from the NBA for his impolitic remarks about African Americans. It is more than evident at this point that Sterling doesn’t have anyone around him offering sound counsel – either that, or he is doing a remarkable job ignoring it.
The week began with a bizarre, ill-advised interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in which the 82-year-old Sterling attempted to apologize for his “stupid, insensitive” remarks, which he said he was baited into making by V. Stiviano, the person who allegedly taped their conversation. He then made a whiplash pivot to attack NBA great …

Continue reading >

Tagged In

Crisis, Media Relations

The Intersection

The Intersection is an in-depth series designed to help you anticipate and prepare for public policy challenges and opportunities.

View the Intersection

The latest from the blog

March 9, 2017  by Alex Hahn

This is what A+ CSR Looks Like

See all posts >