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May 2, 2014 | pwalotsky

Brilliance Behind the Scenes: The Quiet Victors in the Clippers Saga

The swift, appropriate, and authoritative action of the NBA – and particularly new Commissioner Adam Silver – has been widely praised by every crisis communications expert across America as a new high-watermark in execution. Certainly, Commissioner Silver and league officials deserve immense credit for not only doing the right thing, but doing it quickly and conducting a flawless press conference on Tuesday. The only flaw to pick at in the entire response predates the Silver era: the NBA long tolerated shameful Donald Sterling’s conduct prior to the new audio that triggered this immediate crisis. Specifically, Sterling was known as a virulent racist for the better part of a decade thanks to several discrimination lawsuits brought by tenants of his housing units and even NBA Hall of Famer and former Clippers General Manager, Elgin Baylor.

Still, despite the tremendous response by the NBA, it’s arguable that the best strategists in this instance were the players. It’s starting to emerge in the reporting that Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, current Mayor of Sacramento, and Chairman of the NBPA Search Committee, quietly articulated to Commissioner Silver on behalf of players that if anything short of a lifetime ban, maximum fine, and pursuit of a forced sale was recommended by the league, players from all six teams playing that evening would boycott the games. If carried out, a boycott – which could go on indefinitely – would be crippling to Silver and the league’s reputation, encourage reporters to dig deeper into indiscretions of Sterling and other NBA owners, and create a deep divide on race between a new white Commissioner and its majority of African-American players. In the pursuing standoff, the league would have been forced to walk-back its position or cancel the remainder of the playoffs, both indescribably bad options.

While one likes to think that Commissioner Silver and the NBA would have chosen the path they did regardless of this pressure by players – and there’s absolutely no reason or indication to think otherwise – this behind-the-scenes strategy of the players and tactical execution of quiet protests in advance of the Tuesday press conference were brilliant tactical moves. More so, it achieved their goals, didn’t distract their attention from the challenging games ahead, and allowed Silver to take credit for the victory. This strengthened Silver and the league in the eyes of fans, created a deep well of goodwill between the players and Commissioner’s office, and resulted in Donald Sterling’s inevitable removal by other owners.

The players have taught communications strategists an important lesson: when you have a pocket ace and you know you’re going to win, sometimes its best to let others take credit. You still get the outcome you want, and you build a deep reservoir of trust and favor with the partners you helped.

But aside from the victory by Commissioner Silver, the NBA and players, there’s a deeper lesson particularly for executives of public corporations. Whether Sterling’s horrific comments or the recent, more controversial example of Brandon Eich at Mozilla, leaders have been served notice that there is a difference between free speech and consequence-free speech. What these examples have clearly demonstrated are the extent to which our public and private lives have combined. If you’re not prepared to defend your remarks, donations, relationships, or other private actions years from now, you should think twice because private lives are fair game.

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Posted by pwalotsky at 12:01 pm | Tagged , , , , | Comment (0)

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