Clippers: Crisis Comm 101

Clippers: Crisis Comm 101

The news has been dominated by the Donald Sterling story. The scandal damaged the NBA brand, and the Clippers organization and a majority of the public were rightfully offended. Sponsors pulled dollars, and social media was on fire. From a PR perspective, action was necessary, but deciding the right course of action determines survival or destruction in reputation management.


When in crisis communications mode, there’s much to consider: How does this affect the brand promise? What are the sponsorship implications? Who’ll lead the investigation? Will this impact ticket sales? How do you balance the interests of stakeholders, including the public at large whose social media keystrokes can kill a brand like a death by a thousand cuts. From a multicultural marketing standpoint, here are three steps brands should take away from this case:


  1. Assess the situation. Weigh all the facts and key stakeholders in the crisis situation and develop a strategy to address all that aligns together. Following the investigation, a decision came in three days. The NBA may have had a crisis plan on the books that they had to customize for this situation, given the time frame of response. Some applauded the swift action after the voice on the tape was confirmed to be Mr. Sterling’s…others thought it was via mob rule. But with the power of social media, waiting too long to act can be devastating to a brand’s credibility. Having a crisis plan in the wings helps to move swiftly.
  2. Address the situation. Once a scandal breaks, the best defense is a strong offense. While an investigation is conducted to gather details, brands must communicate with their audiences –fans, stakeholders, personnel, sponsors, and media. Getting ahead of the controversy is critical, and while the investigation may be pending, a statement must be made, addressing the situation, speaking to the investigation, and reassuring these key audiences that action will be determined once the all of the facts are confirmed.
  3. Determine and take action. With verified facts, action should occur in a timely fashion. The NBA did so quickly, given the media landscape we live in. Some saw this a rush to judgment, however, weighing all factors – national outcry, the sentiment of the team’s several black players and black head coach, loss of sponsorships – the ban was the right course of action to begin to heal the reputation blows suffered.


Could this communications crisis been averted earlier? Bomani Jones addressed this in 2006, pointing out Sterling’s documented history of discrimination, and action should’ve happened then.



While new media makes activism easier, it requires communicators to step up their game to be proactively prepared, and appropriately reactive, when crisis arrives at their doorstep. The bloggers and commentators will continue to discuss this in the context of race relations, and whether the action taken may or may not have been appropriate. But knowing the history that existed from a public standpoint, it may have been a little too late to avoid this communications firestorm.


Christina Steed is a Senior Vice President at Flowers Communications Group.



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