Six PR Insights from Michael Jordan and “The Last Dance”
This piece initially appeared in Drew Mauck’s LinkedIn newsletter, “Communication Breakdown”.
Stepping into the vacuum of a spring without live sports, the provocative, revealing, and disputed documentary, The Last Dance, has been the dominant sports content of the past month. In the United States, an average of 6.1 million viewers tuned in for the first two episodes, making that the most viewed ESPN documentary ever — and as someone whose teenage years were spent basking in the aura of these legendary Bulls teams, I couldn’t be happier to join them on a walk down memory (and the free throw) lane. It has also been a fun experience to share some of the TV-14 episodes with my daughters, who were both born more than a decade after the Last Dance season of ‘97–98.
But as much as I’ve enjoyed reminiscing on the past, the series has also resonated with my career in the present as the founder of a PR and communications firm. (The name “3Points” actually comes from the rule of three, but it is also an homage to one of the more powerful things you can do in sports, drain a three pointer). As such, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching Michael Jordan and the squad’s exploits from decades ago and consider them through the lens of PR, messaging, and branding.
Below, have a look at six (one for each NBA ‘ship that dynasty secured) key PR insights — good and bad — you can take away from The Last Dance.
1. Live your words.
In one of the most talked-about interviews in the documentary, Jordan reckons with his leadership style and whether that meant he would never be considered a “nice guy.” (More on this later.) In the documentary, just before this famous clip, he says, “You ask all my teammates. The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f — -ing do.”
This is important for life in general, but it’s essential in PR. Public relations (at least good public relations) is not “spinning” bad stories into good. It’s all about authenticity, and if your actions don’t match your words, it will become very hard to build trust with your audience.
2. Embrace the pressure.
Jordan lived for the big moments. From knocking down the game winner as a freshman at UNC to his 6–0 NBA Finals record to his multiple game-winning shots in the pros, he achieved his global icon status because he seemed to come through again and again when it mattered most. And even when he missed would-be game-winning shots, as he did in his second-to-last game as a Bull, he always embraced the moment. .
There is pressure that comes with PR, especially in big public moments: product launches, executive personnel changes, or crises. How someone responds to that pressure is what separates great PR pros from good ones. Your clients will be looking to you for guidance, so step up and call for the ball.
3. Never take a game off.
Michael Jordan did not take games off. Whether he was sick with the flu (or as we now know, food poisoning), his team was subpar (this doc reminds us that his early Bulls teams lacked talent), or the team was playing a relatively less meaningful regular season game against a fourth-tier opponent, MJ played to win. Part of this came from his hot-fire competitiveness. But The Last Dance also points out another motive. He knew that, in every game, there were fans in attendance who were there primarily to see him compete in the game of basketball. Greats in all performance professions, such as Frank Sinatra and Tracy Chapman, have lived by a similar creed. Maybe those fans had never seen him before in person, and considering that the ticket prices for MJ games were always sold at a premium, maybe they wouldn’t have a chance again. He owed it to them to show up and give them something worthy of being remembered for the rest of their lives.
As the longtime Head and Shoulders (a top brand in the ’90s, coincidentally) tagline goes, “You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression.” But in PR, you should treat every impression like a first impression. There are always potential new people in your audience, and even for those who are familiar with your brand, slipups are often magnified compared to successes. When you are representing your clients or company in PR, you have to be locked in.
4. Keep it short and simple.
On the eve of Jordan’s (first) return to basketball, his agent, David Falk, was putting together a statement that could be sourced by media around the world — only Michael wasn’t having any of the verbose options being presented. (Falk was also a lawyer, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the wordiness.) Instead, he offered just two words that then became iconic: “I’m Back.”
As PR people, we should be passionate about whatever and whomever we are representing, so it’s tempting to stuff your communications with flowery language and more than a few positive messages. But the more information you add into a message, the harder it is for audiences to remember the core of that message. Brevity is a powerful tool, as is authenticity. What gave “I’m Back” such lasting fame in the world of sports wasn’t just that it was brief, it was audaciously brief and clearly in Jordan’s voice.
5. Stand for something (as long as it’s authentic).
Jordan’s legacy is largely positive, but one of the few things he regularly gets docked for is his “Republicans buy sneakers too” comment. This is an issue with a few layers. For one, Jordan mentions that he didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to offer his endorsement of Harvey Gantt and that the statement was made in jest. In that case, it is understandable not to make a public endorsement — we keep getting back to the value of authenticity. The issue, then, is less about his decision than the quote attributed to him.
It is also important to note that times have changed, and in today’s world, taking a stand is not only more acceptable, but in some ways even beneficial. Look at the activism of the current best basketball player in the world, LeBron James. And while Colin Kaepernick likely lost his job for kneeling, his campaign with Nike actually led to sales going up. The best PR is less about products and more about values and purpose, so if you are passionate about something, don’t be afraid to speak up.
6. Treat your teammates well — and trust them.
Let’s start with the obvious here: you absolutely cannot lead by relentless name calling, even if that behavior has been previously a part of the culture. On a human level, it’s degrading and bullying, but that’s obvious. From a PR perspective, you have to consider that there is simply far less of a wall between public and private, with the advances in technology and prevalence of social media. If you continually treat people poorly in your office, word of it is more likely to find its way onto the internet. It sounds overly simplistic, but simply being a stand-up person goes a long way in PR.
There is no doubt MJ’s leadership style could have easily backfired (I doubt it would fly in today’s NBA), and in some instances he was plain wrong. Overall, however, he was able to press the right buttons and he trusted his teammates who had put in the work needed to be a champion at the sport’s highest level. Remember, while MJ hit the NBA FInals winner in 1998, he put the ball in the hands of John Paxson in ’93, and Steve Kerr in ’97 — both of whom were not even starters in those seasons. Basketball is a team sport, and so is PR — whether it’s your coworkers, your clients, or reporters, you have to build trust with others to have PR success.
Has The Last Dance made you think about how you communicate with others? Either way, I can’t get enough ’90s Bulls discussion, so I’d love to hear from you.