Missing the Mark: How the NBA Fouled Out with Its Hong Kong PR

With a name like 3Points, we can’t help but keep an eye on the world of men’s and women’s professional basketball. The biggest story of this NBA season, however, has actually been in the realm of public relations. Our new content strategist, Spencer Doar, decided to dive a little deeper into the league’s China controversy that came to a boil at the beginning of the season.

Pro-democracy protests have been going on in Hong Kong since early summer despite government efforts to quell the unrest, which has become increasingly violent. Encapsulating the heated and complicated nature of the conflict is this fact: a few months ago, news broke that the Hong Kong government had reached out to eight global public relations firms to help craft the narrative; all turned down the government’s offer.

At first, this blog post was intended to be about other sovereign entities’ attempts to enlist PR firms in crisis situations. But the focus changed when the conflict between Hong Kong citizens and the Chinese government gained an odd third wheel: the National Basketball Association.

It all started when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a graphic which included the line, “FIGHT FOR FREEDOM STAND WITH HONG KONG.” That immediately brought the wrath of the Chinese government. Since then, everybody from players, to coaches, to fans, to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been roped into the communications debacle.

Situations like these are incredibly tricky, so it wouldn’t be fair or even possible for us to play armchair point guard and say exactly what the NBA should have done in hindsight. But as a PR firm, we feel the need to point out a few key mistakes from the NBA’s China fiasco, and how they can be avoided. We’ve cobbled together a list of a few — sometimes obvious — things the NBA did wrong from a public relations perspective. Just as six fouls disqualifies a player from an NBA game, here are the NBA’s six biggest fouls in our eyes.

  1. The NBA was reactive, not proactive when it came to social media protocols. The NBA has historically taken a relatively laissez-faire approach when it comes to player and staff social media, coming out of the woodwork with memos and edicts only when things have gone awry. And even then, most of these have pertained to issues that are within the realm of basketball, not geopolitical strife. Back in 2009, the NBA, then under Commissioner David Stern, had to come up with a social media policy after players were found using various platforms during games, to the occasional embarrassment of their respective franchises and/or the league. The NBA should have had more clearly established protocols about social media conduct in place.

As the season wears on, this story may slightly fade, but will not disappear. And it seems unlikely that accidental involvement in international affairs will be a one-and-done occurrence. The NBA is an international organization with operations on every continent except for Antarctica. (Researchers do play basketball on the continent, though.) How long will it take for an executive or player to voice their opinion about, say, what is going on in Syria? Or Brexit?

Good public relations is a driver of revenue, but the sword cuts both ways. This season, NBA television ratings on ESPN are down 20% and down 23% on TNT. While it is impossible to know how much the Hong Kong issue factored into those declines, it certainly could not have helped.

It’s said that when the “stuff” hits the fan, the key action is to first turn off the fan. The NBA, through the errors listed above, is clearly not familiar with unplugging the fan. Let’s hope that the NBA and companies the world over learn from these mistakes the next time they are met with a geopolitical PR crisis.

PR & Communications for Fintech & Chicago Tech. www.3ptscomm.com

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