Some say that LeBron James is a bona fide “public relations genius.” This may or may not be true, we will explore this in a bit, but the fact remains, the basketball star and free agent has managed to dominate the news cycle and foster massive amounts of speculation and therefore buzz around the decision of which b-ball team he would choose to continue his vaunted career with. Would James stay in Cleveland where he has doggedly chased the elusive championship ring for 7 seasons and formed a relationship of sorts with the city and its fans, or would he sign with another franchise, leaving Cleveland high and dry? And if choosing another team, which one would it be?
This event certainty had all the makings of a dramatic narrative from which to create and implement a solid and responsive PR campaign from. But was it?
Not counting the rumors that have been circulating since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where he met fellow players Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, from approximately early June to July 8th, when he finally announced at a live ESPN press conference his decision to go to the Miami Heat, “King James” has been a very popular guy. For example, as of late June his newly launched Twitter account had already acquired over 300,000 followers.
So, to get back to the bona fides that have been bestowed upon James, the real question is: Has the lead-up to the big decision and also importantly, the actual decision, been evidence of James’ (and his handlers of course) public relations genius?
Lets briefly start from the end result and go from there. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Nielsen Co. estimated that 9.95 million people watched James announce on ESPN that he’s leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat, “making it the third-most-watched program on cable television this year.” Even though he already was a big star and media draw, this deluge of viewers obviously shows the campaign did something right because a part of PR is creating awareness and buzz around a product, company or even an individual. This earned recognition has its advantages, and in this particular case, it’s money. James has deftly shown he can command great attention for himself and the league, which may translate into a bigger signing bonus, contract etc., now and down the road. Therefore this aspect of the campaign is indeed a success, but is it unique or different from any other media relations, strategic marketing or publicity campaign? No, not really.
Now, the lead-up to the “The Decision.” James has declared that all advertising revenues from the ESPN performance would be donated by James to the Boys & Girls Club of America. This is a smart PR move as it illustrates a concern for and an awareness of other people beside the proverbial pampered MVP and his big “Decision.” Also, as I mentioned above, James launched a Twitter account and a new website. Both in place to ( ideally) create a channel in which to connect with fans, reporters and the public. Although this is a great idea, it’s pretty standard for any PR campaign these days, as well as the fact he ignored a vital public relations practice: he hasn’t exploited either channel to really interact with his publics in any meaningful way (e.g. he hasn’t followed anyone on Twitter), so a genius this does not make.
On top of these points we also have to factor in the Bitterness in Cleveland and elsewhere that is running quite deep these days. James’ stubborn and increasingly stark reputation as a quitter is not a positive by-product or evidence of a masterful PR campaign. Could he somehow have handled differently this departure from a city that had adopted him as a hero? Yes, he probably shouldn’t have announced his decision on live TV without connecting with his (loyal) fans first. Therefore, I would not call LeBron James a “Veritable PR Genius.” What about you?