The Rebranded LeBron James

In a world of social media and 24-hour news cycles, a bad PR move can completely alter the public’s perception of a brand or celebrity.  LeBron James knows this all too well, but after watching him lead Team USA Basketball to Olympic gold this past Sunday, I was amazed at how he’s been able to repair his once tarnished image.

After “The Decision”, where he infamously dumped his hometown Cavaliers for the Miami Heat during a live TV special, LeBron had gone from the world’s most marketable basketball superstar to the biggest villain in sports. He helped feed this narrative over the course of the 2011 NBA season by repeatedly giving sloppy media interviews, seemingly never thinking before he spoke while his public image was in free-fall.  It was clear that James was in desperate need of improved media training and a revamped PR strategy.

It was going to take more than winning basketball games to fix his situation, and LeBron’s PR people made a great move by drastically limiting his media exposure.  He’s clearly gone through media training, seeming humble and self reflective in the interviews he does choose to give. He was no longer making cringe-worthy quotes, staying as quiet as possible while dominating on the court.  He even stopped tweeting for months leading up to this year’s post-season run in order to focus on the goal at hand.

The result?  Features on how LeBron had rediscovered his love for the game eventually replaced all those negative stories that plagued him throughout 2011.  It was brilliant PR. With no more regrettable sound bites to focus on, the press was forced to cover the only thing that mattered, which is that LeBron James is the best basketball player on earth. (As a Celtics fan, it greatly pains me to say this)

LeBron’s image has truly come full circle, culminating in his gold medal win in London.  Instead of the entitled villain in which he’d been perceived for much of the last two years, he was now billed as the unquestioned and unselfish leader of Team USA.  I’m confident that this would not have been the case, both in reality and in the eyes of the press, had he not completely revamped his image through a very savvy media relations strategy.

The Worst PR Moves Of 2010

It was a good year for bad moves – when it comes to PR, that is. Here’s our list for 2010’s biggest PR blunders.

BP. Let’s get it out of the way. There’s not much more to say about BP’s response to the flood of bad press after the Gulf oil spill. Its handling of the public reaction showed a lack of preparedness, poor message management, and a tone-deaf take on the public mood. BP will have a stained reputation and serve as a textbook case in bad crisis management for years to come.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Call this one the “runaway reputation.” We’ll never know why the General’s aides let themselves be quoted criticizing the Vice President in what was supposed to be a flattering McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone magazine. Blame the ash cloud, which led to a longer embed by reporter Michael Hastings. Or, chalk it up to the booze reportedly consumed on the bus. Whatever the cause, the sloppy media relations resulted in a lesson for PR pros and a defeat for McChrystal.

Spirit Airlines. 2010 wasn’t a smooth year for Spirit. First, it hit some rough PR weather after announcing it would charge as much as $45 per bag for checked luggage. Not popular with fliers. Then, its response to the needs of stranded passengers after a pilot strike was anything but spirited. Yet, the biggest blunder came with the tasteless ad campaign that poked fun at the Gulf oil spill. Fire the PR pilot. Amazon’s decision to sell a self-published “guide for pedophiles” was a PR nightmare. It initially defended the title on freedom of expression grounds, saying that removing it would amount to “censorship.” Coupled with its seemingly arbitrary de-listing of gay and adult-themed titles back in April, the book brouhaha showed a baffling absence of thoughtful policy around controversial content. (In my view, a private company’s decisions about its inventory is not “censorship.”) Amazon pulled the title the next day in the face of public outrage, but not after the publicity made it a Kindle best-seller. Ugh. Turn the page.

Christine O’Donnell. Was her campaign cursed? The Tea Party favorite probably would have been haunted by her decades-old appearances on late-night TV no matter what her communications plan. But, her frequent mistakes showed a lack of preparedness, and her attempt to put the whammy on the witchcraft jokes backfired in a big way. Plus, O’Donnell remains under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds. Scary.

China and the empty chair. By trying to mount a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government shot itself in the foot. Though he remained in his prison cell in China, Liu’s presence dominated the entire ceremony as though he were there in person. The empty chair in Oslo spoke louder than any PR offensive the Chinese could have mounted.

The Transportation Security Administration. Pity the TSA. Its new screening protocol flew right into a perfect storm of public concern over privacy and government regulation, and a slow news weekend. Though it responded to grassroots outrage with savvy use of social media, it failed to get out in front of the story. TSA messaging was heavy on factoids, yet short on empathy. Even Captain “Sully” Sullenberger bashed the patdowns as, um, heavy-handed. A stronger education campaign, including an influencer outreach, in advance of the holiday might have helped.

Lebron James. This guy’s on everyone’s list. His move to Miami was one thing. But the truly bad “Decision” here was to drag out the announcement in an egocentric and overhyped hourlong ESPN television special. The melodrama played badly with fans, and the relentless focus on James (rather than the team), left him poised for a fall.