Image Management

If I Were LeBron's PR Guy...

Thoughts on PR management, big decisions and how to break bad news

by John David

Mr. David is president of David PR Group, in Miama, Fl. He blogs regularly on matters pertaining to mdia, marketing and PR, and shares his views with us. Connect with him by e-mail: Visit

The winds of backlash are again brewing near the shores of Lake Erie as Cleveland Cavaliers’ fans await “The Decision” part two. Rumors are flying that basketball superstar LeBron James may part ways with the Miami Heat and play for Cleveland. The idea that the Akron native might return to Ohio is not outside the realm of possibility. According to news outlets, James’ Cleveland-based agent last week talked to the Cavs along with four other teams (the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers.) After snubbing Cleveland in his much-maligned televised announcement four years ago, how James handles his next move will certainly have an impact on his overall image. Can he afford another public relations gaffe at the expense of Cleveland and its fans?

Remember that Cleveland fans felt beyond betrayed when James left. Some wept after the announcement, and others burned his jerseys in the streets.

At the time, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert penned an open letter to fans, calling James cowardly, shameful and disloyal among other things.

Front page news…

The letter was removed from the Cavs’ website this week as the team and Gilbert attempt to woo James back. Whether James stays in Miami or returns to Cleveland (or moves to L.A, Phoenix or Texas) remains the lead basketball story in the world until he finally makes his new decision. The feasibility of the various scenarios is more complicated than I care to take on. The NBA salary cap looks like trigonometry to me, but even by my journalism school mathematics, I can tell you that any team that has a shot at James will likely move mountains to get the finances to work.

And believe me, Cleveland wants him. His possible return has been front-page news for weeks, and The Plain Dealer recently ran a story asking readers what the page one headline should be if James again joins the Cavs. (Could it be anything other than “Return of the King,” by the way?)

But what if he snubs Cleveland yet again? (Here’s an article suggesting why that’s likely.) What should Jamee do differently from a PR standpoint?

Here are a few tips on breaking bad news:

  • Get your bad news out quickly
    With his “Decision” in 2010, James basically performed slow torture on Cleveland fans. This time around, he needs to again have control of his announcement but not let the timing control him. If he chooses a team that isn’t Cleveland, he should immediately let the Cavs know of his choice. It’s best if the owner of the team hears it directly from James and before the news is plastered all over ESPN and the Internet. Get the “bad news” distributed quickly and without fanfare. Convey bad news like you take off a Band-Aid – fast.
  • Consider the personal touch
    To have maximum impact, bad news is best delivered as personally as possible. Just as it is inappropriate to break-up via text message, one should not issue bad news via press release when a phone call will have an immensely greater impact. If I were counseling James about how to burnish his image in Cleveland, I would tell him that he should call the owner, the mayor of Cleveland and the publisher of The Plain Dealer before making his decision public. If you want to be viewed as a class act (which I personally believe James is), then it is best to behave like one. Just as losing political candidates call and concede elections to their rivals, so should James let Cleveland know of his intentions before the news breaks.
  • Be sympathetic
    No one likes cold, calculated responses when receiving bad news. We don’t know if James is seriously considering a move back to Cleveland, but basketball fans there are rooting for it. If he wants to be respectful of fans in his home state, then it is best for him to craft his message with their feelings in mind. James should tell Cleveland fans that he appreciates them and is grateful for their efforts to try to sign him, but he’s making his current decision, whatever it happens to be, based on what is best for him and his family right now.
But what if he snubs Cleveland yet again? What should James do differently from a PR standpoint?

I don’t know where James will play next season, but his current free agency offers an opportunity to make some amends to Cleveland fans, even if he decides to play elsewhere.

What do you think? Will Cleveland welcome him back if he decides to return?

Please share your thoughts on my blog post here.