On Lebron James’ Crisis Response

I have a new favorite commercial, which is not at all unusual. That it has to do with professional basketball–specifically Lebron James–is unusual. (For the record, I don’t particularly like pro ball, and I think that Lebron is a big part of the reason why.) What I like about this commercial is it’s honest dealing with a subject that amounts to a crisis for the protagonist.

For those who don’t follow professional sports, Lebron’s contract with the only team he had played for, the Cleveland Cavaliers, ended after last season. Given that Lebron is considered by many to be the best professional basketball player today, there was an amazing scramble by teams to looking to add Lebron to their own rosters during the off-season. Lebron toured the NBA, meeting with a variety of teams. His decision-making tour culminated with an hour-long special on ESPN wherein he was to announce which team he would sign with. He ultimately signed with the Miami Heat (along with two other elite-level players). Fans in Cleveland felt abused by the games and drawing out of the process, while fans across the NBA chalked up the spectacle to hubris.

Here’s the full version of the commercial:

What’s front and center in this ad? The problem. The opening scene of the commercial is a replication of what the hour-long press conference looked like, down to the TelePrompTer and checked button-down shirt. He raises the issue of having jumped, in the past, to another team in search of a championship. He asks if he is a villain. He asks (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) if he is even a role model. He asks if you see him as just another man scrambling for more money.

Each of these is a legitimate criticism leveled directly at Lebron this past summer. These are real–they exist–and Lebron James, multi-millionaire superstar basketball player, acknowledges the possibility of each of them. The commercial closes with a dimly lit Lebron laying a basketball into the hoop, a reminder that that is what he does, who he is.

Nike addressed all of the reputational crises of their star spokesperson, and turned the conversation back to the topic at hand, basketball. They redefined Lebron back into a superstar, a spokesperson, a basketball player, that guy that your team will be gunning for when the Miami Heat come to town.

Now this won’t work for everyone. (Tiger Woods? I think not.) But if your crisis is such that it is merely distracting from the core message you’re trying to get out there (and you haven’t been implicated in something nefarious), why not try to address the public’s concerns directly? Bridge to the real issue while simultaneously validating people’s concerns. Granted, you don’t have Nike’s marketing muscle (nor Lebron’s real muscles), but I’m willing to bet that you’re not as universally reviled as Lebron was.

Refocus the discussion. Address the problem and move on.

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