Ever since the tapes that incriminated Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling surfaced, much of the focus naturally has been on Sterling, the sport, and everyone he offended.
However, PR professionals should also take note of the less obvious communications story that’s transpired in the past few days. There are a handful of lessons PR professionals can take away from the NBA’s playbook from this past week.
Lesson #1: Deal with the problem right away. To start, the NBA took the bad news head on and went right to the issue, clamping down on it within days. This helped the league get ahead of the story as much as possible, rather than letting it fester and linger.
Lesson #2: Real consequences. The NBA took real action. Sterling is banned for life and was given a fine of $2.5 million, the maximum allowed under NBA rules. There is no ambiguity in the decision or the crystal-clear message from the NBA to its fans, owners, and general public – racism will not be tolerated.
Lesson #3: Be honest and stop justifying bad behavior. Impressively, the NBA didn’t ask for a forced or insincere apology from Sterling, which are found too often in PR. We heard no lame excuses about, "I grew up this way and should have been more sensitive," etc. And there was no spin masked in counseling, misspeaking, or a simple suspension. The NBA took quick, direct action, allowing it to maintain strong credibility both with players and fans.
Lesson #4: Doing what’s easy can still be the right thing. The pressure was on and players were rightly incensed. And, given Sterling's past record, this may have been an easier decision than it would be with other owners. Regardless, taking the "zero tolerance" policy is simply the right one when it comes to showing a business is serious about saying no to racist and other discriminatory behavior.
Lesson #5: Yes, people make mistakes; and yes, second chances are possible. But certain actions require cleaning house and stepping away from the public eye quickly and permanently. One hopes Donald Sterling at least has the sense to do this.
PR professionals should take note.
Seth Linden is EVP at Dukas Public Relations.