While the Orlando Magic were on the court warming up for their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup on August 26, their opponents were notably missing. The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were still behind closed doors in the locker room with game time rapidly approaching.
Meanwhile, back in Milwaukee, thousands of miles away from the NBA bubble in Florida, was team CCO Barry Baum. Just like everyone else, he was waiting for confirmation of what was happening from the Bucks’ VP of comms Dan Smyczek, who was just outside the locker room. Eventually the news broke: The Milwaukee Bucks players voted not to play as they attempted to effect change after the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, only 45 minutes away from the city the team calls home.
It was then that Baum and his team began assisting the players, management and ownership in crafting statements about the decision that rippled throughout the sports world. Within hours, all NBA games scheduled for that day had been postponed, as well as all WNBA games. Some baseball teams followed suit that night, and the NHL postponed all games the following two days.
PRWeek spoke with Baum about the hours leading up to and following the players’ decision, as well as the days after the story broke. This Q&A has been lightly edited for grammar and style.
When did you first learn that the Bucks players were not going to take the court?
We really didn’t have forewarning on it. I was in regular communications with our VP of communications Dan Smyczek, who was in the bubble. And he was keeping me posted that the team was still in the locker room much longer than usual.
We didn't know what was going to happen. I mean, it looked like the players were not going to take the court, but nothing was confirmed even 15 minutes before the game. Then, at some point, we did find out they had voted not to play the game. And Smyczek was in the locker room with the players when they decided to write a statement.
But that was not immediate. They were talking to people outside of the bubble, elected officials such as the district attorney, the attorney general in Wisconsin and others, and they were getting information.
They really spent a lot of time asking questions and, at the end of the day, [were asking] ‘How can we effect change? What can we do?’ So after doing their due diligence and having long discussions — the discussions went on for hours — they decided to prepare a statement, which they would deliver outside of the locker room to the media that was there.
At some point they called in Smyczek. He had a computer and the players and coaches discussed [the situation]. Really, it was the players. But obviously coaches had an impact here. So I’m in Milwaukee and Smyczek sent me a text saying they were going to work on a statement and they weren’t playing, and that they would deliver the statement when they were done.
Were you already getting media questions?
There were some reporters that were down there and right then they were texting me saying that the players weren’t on the court. This is a few minutes before the game would have tipped off. That’s when Smyczek was still outside the locker room. And at that point we didn't know what was happening for sure because the locker room was closed. It was only coaches and players and some staff in there. So I didn’t respond to the media.
It was almost as if they weren’t even asking. They were just saying players haven’t taken the court — kind of just looking for an answer, but I had none. I was also in regular communication with Peter Feigin, our president, as well as some of the owners.
The owners wanted to have a statement as well, which would be sent to the media in advance of the players or around the same time. It was very close to simultaneous. So we had that statement ready to go. I was also in regular contact with our marketing department and our CMO Dustin Godsey.
The player statement was delivered by [Bucks teammates] George Hill and Sterling Brown with their teammates alongside them. And Smyczek sent it to me and I sent it to our CMO, our marketing department. And then we posted that as well. So it was very fluid.
We did not know what the players were going to say. Obviously we had an idea at that point that they were bringing attention to social injustice. It was very thoughtful. I was really proud to work for an organization that takes a stand and cares about making a difference in our community and has the right values. And I was so proud of our players for their courage and bringing attention to social injustice.
What was the media response like after that?
We didn’t do any interviews that day. The players read their statement and left the building. We posted our statement from the owners and the player statement. And we also sent it widely to the media. But we did not hold interviews with any of our players or coaches or executives the rest of that day.
It was a day for them to really reflect and to talk among themselves, and among the players throughout the league, about what they wanted to accomplish, what next steps they wanted to take. Obviously we received many requests for interviews. Everyone from MSNBC (several shows on MSNBC) several shows on CNN, on NPR and Fox News.
It was a nonstop barrage of requests from the national media. But me, our GM Jon Horst, Feigin, head coach Mike Budenholzer and Smyczek talked about it and we decided that our statements spoke for themselves.
We elected not to do any subsequent interviews until Friday [two days later] when we had a practice. I know Hill did a Zoom interview. He explained his thoughts really eloquently and talked about the whole situation that led up to the team’s decision. Budenholzer also spoke, and spoke so well, about his feelings on social injustice and how proud he was of the players taking a stand.
If not for the pandemic, you would have been at the playoff game, right?
Absolutely. I would have been on the road with the team. This is my third season with the Bucks as CCO. I would be working on something like this. And not just the external messaging, which is obviously very important, but the internal messaging and making sure everybody from the owners to the president, the GM, the coach, the players and all the employees have all the information.
That way they know in real time what is happening, what the players are saying and what is planned and what is in the media. We need to keep everybody knowledgeable with all of the news that’s going on and how we are responding to media requests.
Before we even finalize a statement or a press release [we run it past] the diversity leadership council that we started a few months ago, led by six people in our company. Feigin started that, and there we discuss what messaging we want to share externally and internally.
So this is not just the communications department drafting a quote and sending it to Feigin or our GM. There is a real process in place and we enable everyone to have a voice within the company. It’s really effective and a pleasure to work for a company that handles their communication that way.
What about other potential work outages? Is that something that could happen again?
That is not something that I’m aware of. That hasn’t been brought up to me at all. But, like every team, we’ve been dealing with a lot over the last six months. A pandemic, racial injustice, a downturn in our business. But we all know how important communications are in what’s happening in the world today.
It’s such a challenging time, and in challenging times you need strong communications. That’s how we and the team’s owners feel. That’s how our president, GM and our coach feels. So we are all in sync and we understand the importance of communications, externally and internally.