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.
  2. It lacked preparedness. This ties in with the first point, but from the discombobulated nature of the NBA’s response, it’s clear that there was not much in place in the way of a contingency plan. The lack of situational awareness looked even worse given that some NBA teams were in China for preseason play as the scandal developed, making a conflict that would usually have been buffered by the Pacific Ocean much more tangibly awkward for the NBA.
  3. The NBA only had “sorry” to say. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg knows the issue with empty apologies and the NBA’s initial, knee-jerk “sorry” was just as ill-informed. Even worse, the “sorry” was interpreted by some as the league apologizing for the democratic right to free speech. (Note: This also played into the discombobulated angle raised in point #2 on this list, as it was the NBA as an organization that apologized, while Commissioner Adam Silver did not, in fact, apologize, instead saying he supported Morey’s expression of his free speech.)
  4. The association tried to put the cat back in the bag. After the issue had unleashed itself upon the basketball viewing public, there were some misguided attempts at censorship. A fan was removed from an NBA preseason game for displaying signage in support of Hong Kong and a video went viral of an in-game fan dance-cam quickly moving on from a child when he showed a shirt in support of Hong Kong. The NBA did itself no favors by covering the issue up.
  5. The NBA’s message was not unified. There was little coherence in what the NBA presented in the initial wake of Morey’s tweet (something that clearly was in part due to point #2 on this list). The NBA commissioner, other coaches, players, and commentators all found themselves addressing the issue in dramatically different ways, sometimes spawning micro-crises, as was the case with LeBron James’ reaction. He said, “…just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.” Some saw this as hypocritical, given LBJ uses his headliner status to promote domestic social causes. (After LBJ’s comments, Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA’s players union, said that, “…I need to, and the players need to, be more aware of the world around us.”)
  6. The NBA lacked fiscal transparency. It’s hard to fully trust the party line from the NBA when the organization does not disclose its revenues by region. What is known is that China is the NBA’s best growth market and that a sizable bit of the league’s revenues originate there. (Roughly 500 million fans watched NBA streams on Tencent last season and the NBA has 200 million social media followers in China.) Annual NBA revenue from China is conservatively estimated to be $500 million, based on deals that are publicly known. Then there are the sponsorships by Chinese companies of players, commentators and other parties who make money via the NBA. If these sponsorship and funding sources are not transparent, establishing credibility becomes much more challenging.

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.