Gini Dietrich

LeBron James: A PR Nightmare

By: Gini Dietrich | July 13, 2010 | 

I know none of us want to give any more ink to LeBron James, but I have something to say about the PR nightmare he created for himself.

Look, I wanted him to come to Chicago just as much as the next guy (but maybe not as much as Philip Nowak). I wanted him to take the challenge the Bulls created, with help from Leo Burnett, to fill Michael Jordan’s shoes. Heck,  I would have even been happy had he filled them AND won more championships in a Bulls jersey. But now, like most NBA fans, I don’t care who he is, what he does, and I hope the Miami Heat never win a championship with him there (however unrealistic).

Mr. D is a huge Bill Simmons fan and is always relating his blog posts to me. Early in our marriage, I politely listened. Then I realized this Bill Simmons is a genius. And he called LeBron going to Miami as soon as we learned Wade and Bosh were going to play there. His reasoning was the three of them made a pact, when they played together on the Olympics team, that they would play on the same team someday.

Which is why this whole media circus LeBron created kills me. What is the point of a more than week-long media circus, ending with The Decision with a full hour on ESPN? It’s not only ego-filled, narcissistic, and over-the-top, it’s a horrible PR move. The media did not create this circus; he did. He made the decision BEFORE the hype. I don’t even know that I want to give him credit for listening to what the other teams were offering – what a colossal waste of time and money.

I would have had a ton more respect for him, and looked at it like a smart business decision (as Esther Steinfeld points out in her blog post – LeBron James is a Genius), if he’d come out and said, “I made a pact with these guys two years ago. Just like they’ve done in Boston with the Big Three, we want to play together. I’m going to Miami to see what we can do.”

Can you imagine how differently people would have reacted to that vs. the way it played out?

LeBron didn’t go to college so he wasn’t recruited like most athletes. Good for him for being a free agent and having nearly every big market team after him. We’d all love that, no matter what our profession. But, with his inexperience, immaturity, and ego, he created a PR nightmare for his credibility, his image, and his new team and teammates. He is likely the most hated athlete in our country and his new team now gets to deal with that baggage everywhere they go.

Do I think it was time for LeBron to leave Cleveland? Probably. Do I think the way Dan Gilbert handled the news appropriate? No (another blog post for another time). Do I think LeBron could have let Cleveland, and other NBA fans, down easy? For sure. Do I think LeBron just single-handedly ruined his image? Abso-freaking-lutely!

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Dena

    LeBron James is a PRick.

  • Gini, great observations! LeBron James is not doubt a talented player but I can remember this selfishness surfacing in the final year of his high school career, so this latest act while abhorrent is no surprise. This could have been handled with a quiet dignity (contract The Decision with Tom Izzo’s decision) that would have enhanced LeBron’s image. It was in bad form and I wonder how all of this selfless promotion will play with the rest of the Heat. As far as I can tell basketball remains a team sport and not a one or three man show. Dan Gilbert also handled it poorly so maybe the two of them really deserved each other after all.

    • Hi Karen! I could not agree more…on all accounts, including how Dan Gilbert handled it. Do I blame him for reacting the way the did? Not at all! But the sign of a true leader is one who takes that energy and bottles it in a positive way. I would have left that organization, too.

  • Gini,

    I’ve got a client – he’s a superstar one of the best in his business. The thing is he works for an average company – they’re getting some really good results, but he’s responsible for just about all of it.

    He wants to work for an award winning organization with other great talent. He’s willing to check his ego and be one of many, and he’s willing to do it for less money.

    Okay, I’m sure you figured it out – he’s not my client; but it is what LeBron James did.

    Do I think his 1-hour “reality” TV show was a blunder? Absolutely!! Do I think he’s taking a hit? Yes. Do I think he’s a nightmare – no way.

    The biggest hit to his “brand” is that he won’t be “the guy” on the Heat. That will probably cost him millions – but that has nothing to do with his tactical blunder.

    Really, what is LeBron James guilty of? Being a narcissist? Is that news? He didn’t shoot anyone. He didn’t steal anything. He didn’t even cheat on anyone.

    Let’s not be guilty of over-reacting here. He’s stature has certainly taken a hit – but he’s hardly a nightmare.

    • Andy Abend


      I don’t want to speak for Gini, but she agrees with LeBron’s right to find the best fit for himself. As do I. He was a free agent and can do whatever he wanted – even play in Europe if that is what he desired.

      Here is where I think he fell down.
      – He gave into the media circus to fill his ego – and seemed so uncomfortable with it, he seemed to struggle in the limelight
      – He came across as insincere about his love of Cleveland by slapping them in the face on prime time television
      – Lastly, he has now set unrealistic expectations because if Miami doesn’t win multiple championships he tarnishes his brand

      Once he knew where he wanted to go, he should have held a simple press conference like everyone else. Then the media circus could have ensued.

      Lastly, it isn’t about sharing the spotlight. It isn’t about doing what is best for him. It is about he has now put himself in a no win situation which from a PR perspective and that is the nightmare.

      • Hi Andy – nice to meet you.

        I agree the show was silly and even, possibly, a fiasco. The moment he announced it I tweeted, “it’s official I don’t care what LeBron does.”

        And I also think the way he informed Cleveland (which by the way is the only town that he “owed” anything to) of his decision was immature.

        It’s easy to say if he had just had a press conference his brand wouldn’t be tarnished. I don’t really think that’s the case. He’d still be accused of betrayal, and not having the confidence to be “the man.”

        As for unrealistic expectations – he already had them. His “brand” was “priced” as an athlete that won multiple championships. So had he stayed, gone to Chicago, New York, etc. the demands would have been there. He’s probably got a better chance of winning multiple championships in an organization led by one of the greatest owners in all of sports (Micky Arison) and one of the smartest executives (Pat Riley).

        My point is that the show was a tactical blunder not a killer. Also, if you want to talk about the “hit” on his “brand” it has far more to do with him not being “the guy” than his decision about “The Decision.”

        • Well, I was all riled up to say EXACTLY what Andy said, but he beat me to it. Thanks Andy!

          Doug, I think we actually agree here. And, after I read your comment yesterday morning, my initial reaction is that this might be a difference in opinion because I’m looking at it from a PR/communication perspective, not from an NBA/LeBron perspective. I do think it’s going to hurt him in ways we won’t see for a year or more. I don’t think it’s a tactical blunder…I think it’s much bigger than that.

  • I just wonder if he even cares. From his perspective, he got his money, we ended up where he wanted to be, and he got a MASSIVE amount of attention – I can’t remember the last time everyone EVERYWHERE was sitting around their TV screens hoping they’d land Lebron.

    Was it immature and arrogant? Absolutely. Does he care? Probably not because at the end of the day, he’s laughing all the way to the bank…

    • We talked about this on Twitter and, you might be right, he may not care. I’d like to think that if I were in his position I would care. I can’t imagine the image rebuilding that Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant and Ben Rothlisberger are having to do is softened by the amount of money they make. But maybe you’re right – maybe money does change people. That’s pretty clear by reserving AN HOUR on ESPN to announce your decision.

  • LOVE this post. Well thought out and very well put together.

    I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Also, I’m inclined to think that if Lebron, did like you said, and came out and said that he wanted to play with his friends to see what he could do, I think his image would be far better.

    The media circus he created for himself makes him look arrogant and overrated.

    Then again, I’m not a huge NBA fan, I’m more of an NCAA girl, so I don’t think I’m one to judge. That’s just the way it looked to me.

    I didn’t watch his hour long special either — thought he totally was a waste of an hour.

    • I’m also not an NBA fan and I thought The Decision was a waste of an hour, but I have to admit I was glued to the television to see what one person could possibly say for an entire hour about where he was going to go play.

      I seriously would have respected his decision had he come out and said he wanted to go play with his friends.

  • What’s NBA? 😉

    Seriously, this is why I prefer college sports, junior hockey, etc. These overpaid “stars” are given way too much importance by folks like us (the general public) that should know better.

    Yes, it’s great for morale when your team wins the Super Bowl, or the World Cup, or whatever the NBA equivalent is.

    But that’s short-term. There are still the everyday problems that cities and its inhabitants have.

    Maybe we should spend time celebrating folks that are trying to make our lives better full-stop, as opposed to those trying to make it better for a victory day and millions in the bank…

    Sorry, my coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. Should have had my own PR team to tell me not to comment when grumpy and tired… 😉

    • Danny, that’s a good point! The NBA striked a few years ago and we all get fed up their over-inflated egos then. I’m following your lead. No more NBA for me! And…if that comment was grumpy and tired, well, you make me laugh!

  • LeBron has been told that he’s a great basketball player since he was 10 and he’s gone out on the court only to prove it. Since then, he’s had enablers – his family, friends, business associates, the NBA and fans.

    He’s ego got to him and in a second he went from becoming on of the world’s most beloved athletes to one of the most hated.

    He also ruined his “brand” and possibly tarnished his legacy because he will always be looked at as a someone who followed other great players.

    • Ah Ismael! I hadn’t considered that he’ll be looked at as someone who followed other great players. VERY interesting note to keep in the back of my head as we watch this unravel.

  • Haha I love it Gini! Great post – I could just hear your voice narrarating the whole thing. I completely agree that it was a publicity stunt gone wrong…I hope he enjoyed it while it lasted!

  • Another great post Gini. I agree with Danny Brown’s comment about preferring college sports, in my case especially college basketball over the NBA.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing Miami win a title for one reason Dwayne Wade. Besides the Marquette connection, I think D Wade is really a class act.

    As I’ve tweeted about a few times what LeBron and most of his fellow NBA players really need is a competent, honest financial advisor. The statistics on the number of pro athletes who run into serious financial trouble post-retirement are staggering. (Clearly my own professional bias coming through here).

    From the LeBron PR fiasco, one would suspect that he needs competent advisors who are not afraid to tell him what they think in a variety of areas.

    • Please do not tell me you’re not a Bulls fan. You’re about to break my heart, cheesehead.

  • I had not thought of it this way. But after reading your post, I agree with you. LeBron got horrible advice on the way he handled all of this. He is going to get booed in many cities. You’re right that the Heat will probably win an NBA championship – but aren’t we all rooting against them now? I am.

  • Nice piece. In the end he is responsible for himself and the self-inflicted wound from which he must now recover.

    From my optic – his brand required care and he hired a team which not only publicly self-destructed, but did him wrong.

    I agree with your assessment – he should have just said – I want to have fun and see what we can do – I’m going to Miami.

    He now, however, has an opportunity to unload some of that baggage he acquired and re-brand himself. How much $$$$ does it require to live in luxury for life? I’ve no idea, but I’ll guess it is less than what he has earned and will earn and thus he has the resources to take what others lack – $$$$ – and make a difference. It’s up to Lebron if he makes this difference on the local stage or the national, but think of how many would benefit from $1M to fight hunger with his assist to Feeding America, as an example.

    It’s later now.
    All the best,

    • And here I thought this was too much for so early in the morning! 🙂 I wonder if ANYONE will advise him to take some of his money and do good. What would be really cool is if he did some good in Cleveland as his last hurrah. But what do I know? No one asks me.

  • Tony Telloni

    I’m a huge Bill Simmons fan as well but he did not call the three of them going to Miami, Stephan A Smith (another personality for ESPN who covers pro hoops) did, and Bill Simmons mentions him and his claim in posts leading up to “The Decision.” Agree completely with his PR nightmare, as he alienated fan bases in six markets and immediately became a villain. Only time (and perhaps championships) will tell if his brand can recover. No one takes exception at his leaving or joining Miami, but the way he went about it proved his ‘inside team’ really didn’t account for the backlash he’s getting. Time for new brand management LeBron to go with your new team.

    • Totally agree with you…and thanks for the clarification on who called the three of them going to Miami. I read the post differently so I appreciate you letting me know.

  • Art

    LeBron James managed to make a positive image negative, I should say permanently negative, in the matter of one hour. I suspect that he and Maverick Carter don’t care but when the news filters back from sponsors other than NIKE he will realize what a blunder he made.

    Other than that he now plays on someone else’s team, Dwayne Wade’s team. That will represent the loss of tens of millions of income over his career assuming he isn’t injured.

    This is a lesson on what not to do in PR!

    • Won’t it be fun, Art, when we can sit back and say, “See! I told you so!”??

  • Dave

    Whoopity do. Another complaining fan who didn’t get James on their team. Every single person is talking about Lebron on the internet and every single person is going to be watching what happens in Miami. He leveraged his popularity, much of what you do with your self proclaimed expertise.
    The guy decides to take less pay and go somewhere where he isn’t necessarily the only shining star because he wants to win multiple championships. His money comes from outside the NBA. The guy wants to win and everyone who didn’t get him on their team is complaining. Way to jump on the whiner bandwagon. The guy has more talent then anyone complaining about him and makes more money too. If he was doing something wrong with his career, let me know when he fails.

    • I’m actually not complaining Chicago didn’t get him. I would have liked to see him come here, but this post is about how he handled himself, from a PR/brand/communication perspective. I don’t agree with going on national television to break up with your team. It could have been handled much more respectfully and with more dignity, both for him and Cleveland.

      So now I’ll take my self-proclaimed expertise and work on something for a client who pays me for that proclamation.

  • Hi Gini, I am not sure whether it was a bad PR move or not, but even if it was, I don’t think it will matter much in the long run. I hated the idea of millions of viewers watching “The Decision” and hated even more that LeBron waited so long, and used that platform, to let Cleveland know of his intentions, therefore limiting the Cavs’ ability to go after other free agents. However, none of this matters. Rings matter. Rings trump all. His brand? Fixed with Rings. That’s the society in which we live. It wasn’t long ago that Kobe’s brand took a serious hit due to his issues in Colorado, but a couple championships later, all that is forgotten. Kobe is The Man in the NBA. Tiger is going through that now. If he wins the upcoming British Open and goes on to be the Tiger he once was on the golf course, the sponsors will return, the public will forget the off-the-course stuff and his brand will be salvaged. Same with LeBron, he may take a PR hit now, but I don’t believe he’ll take a financial hit in the short or long run and if he wins a ring or two in Miami, he’ll be looked at as a genius for his move, regardless of how he delivered the message.

    Oh, but don’t get me wrong, I will be soooooooooo happy when the Celtics still take down the Heat!

    • I can’t wait until the Celtics take down the Heat! Before I wouldn’t have cared. I agree that he can fix his image…and that a couple of Rings will do just that. But he could have prevented an image blur to begin with. Egos and money. That’s all this is.

  • Jeremy

    Mr. D is right, Bill Simmons is a genius. And you’re dead on with this post.

    Not only was this PR nightmare avoidable, but I also think it reflects LeBron’s true character, or at least those around him. I can’t understand how he couldn’t have thought to have informed the Cavs before he went on national TV to announce he was leaving them. Just classless.

    At least he’s on Twitter now so you can DM him and let him know your thoughts. He certainly could use some better advice.

    Lastly, a conspiracy thought. Ari Emmanuel from William Morris-Endeavor helped put the special together. Yet Lebron is repped by CAA. Maybe Ari wanted to create a mess for his rival agency to clean up?

  • There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that says “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

    I think it may be a PR nightmare from the firm’s perspective, but just the idea that all of us are talking about him and this fiasco proves that it is all about who or what we’re talking about. Isn’t that what we as PR people should do … See Moreto keep our client/product relevant, current, and known?

    Sometimes an unhinged, and remarkable wildfire is better than a contained and controlled campaign.

    To that end, I think he succeeded, because before this, I had never heard of him. And perhaps, so many other people hadn’t. When I speak to basketball fans, they say that the NBA is suffering from support, and fans. This fiasco is just what the doctor ordered to pull the fans back, and keep them intrigued, after all a little mystery, and gossip goes a long way.

    And even if they get one fan, old or new back, it was all worth the hype, and the wildfire campaign.

    As Esther Steinfeld said in her blog post, “Even my great aunt was watching ESPN last night.”

    I think that’s a success, and planned or not planned,whether anyone agrees with me or not, the whole nation got caught up in it, and I think that was genius.

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  • udayan

    Call me old fashioned, but I hate him for leaving Cleveland!

  • DougSimon

    Business and PR learned the wrong lessons from LeBron. It wasn’t bad PR that put him in hot water. It was a bad business decision. Here’s an article about that

  • I hate him for leaving Cleveland too!