LeBron James is revered as a basketball genius, expertly reading opponents, learning from mistakes, and continually improving his game. It seems he has similar talents off the court as well, since last week’s announcement of his return to Cleveland was a masterstroke from a PR perspective.
I should start with a disclaimer that I’m a Miami native, die-hard Heat fan, and season ticket holder. It therefore pains me to praise something intellectually that feels like a punch in the gut emotionally. But facts are facts, and his approach to this long-awaited announcement was pitch-perfect.
In 2010, LeBron departed the Cavaliers organization and switched his loyalties to the Miami Heat. His approach four years ago was universally panned by critics and supporters alike for the staging of an arrogant and tone deaf press event with ESPN, infamously stating "I’m taking my talents to South Beach." The rollout was a train wreck for myriad reasons, including a lack of authenticity to stage something at the Boys & Girls Club, which had very little to do with the announcement, the arrogance of the statement itself, and the setting of impossible expectations the next few days as he guaranteed multiple championships – "Not one, not two, not three, not four…"
This time around, he was well-advised and executed with finesse, penning an open letter to fans that had several benefits:
- Control: A professionally crafted letter gave LeBron the opportunity to get his point across and calmly explain himself, addressing all inevitable questions at the onset in a setting where he wouldn’t be rattled or thrown off his game.
- Exclusive: LeBron submitted the letter exclusively to Sports Illustrated, avoiding the inevitable chatter about the 2010 announcement should he have returned to ESPN with the breaking news. In today’s media climate, the word spread to basically every single outlet in the country within five seconds anyway. But this time, he didn’t need a big event to have the same impact.
- Graciousness: LeBron seemed to anticipate all potential fodder for the rumor mill, and addressed these issues head on. He graciously thanked the city of Miami, calling it his "second home," his teammates, as well as Micky Arison and Pat Riley of the Heat organization. Markedly absent was the immature ill will on both sides of the equation when he left Cleveland. He even stated that he has buried the hatchet with Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, who in 2010 said some unfortunate things about his departing star. (P.S. His graciousness was matched in the responses by Arison and Riley, who had every reason to be as disappointed as Gilbert was four years earlier).
- Humility: LeBron learned his lesson on how hard it is to win championships, no matter how talented you are. He therefore made no predictions this time around, managed expectations that rebuilding the Cavs would take some time, and stated his goal of bringing one title to the city he loves.
- Bigger picture: Last time, it was all about winning championships and personal glory. This time, the letter framed the situation in broader, higher-minded terms, with LeBron wanting to return home for the right reasons and the goal of helping a struggling region, Northeast Ohio, experience some of the joy that he helped create in Miami.
- Exit strategy: Immediately after submitting the letter, LeBron skipped town to attend the World Cup final in Brazil, depriving fuel for any fire and leaving the chattering classes to sing his praises – or not, since you can’t please everyone.
LeBron learned his lessons and upped his game. Most Heat fans will appreciate the incredible four years he brought to Miami, and begrudgingly respect how he handled this difficult decision. From a communications perspective, this was a game winning shot.
Mike Valdes-Fauli is president and CEO of Pinta. Find him on Twitter at @MikeValdesFauli.