Kevin Broom is a basketball fan, a TrueHoop reader, and a 15-year veteran of public relations. As he watched the Gilbert Arenas gun escapade play out in real time, he had a lot of thoughts about how the Wizards and Arenas could have handled things better:
The public perceptions of the Washington Wizards and Gilbert Arenas got pummeled when news broke that Arenas had brought guns into the locker room. While the action itself inevitably was going to hurt, much of the damage was self-inflicted.
When a "crisis" occurs, silence is not an option in today's media environment. Too many media outlets, too many blogs, too many message boards. Rumors and speculation get treated like fact.
The Wizards and Arenas blundered by letting someone else tell the story. Peter Vecsey got a number of details wrong -- compared to the version that made the court documents. But Vecsey’s narrative became the one that stuck: that the Wizards locker room had turned into the Wild West. That Arenas and Javaris Crittenton drew guns on each other over a gambling dispute.
The impression was clear: that the incident was angry and dangerous. Eyewitnesses later contradicted important portions of that story, but public perception was set. The first story is the one that sticks. Especially one so indelibly dramatic. Everything that comes later looks like damage control.
What could the team have done?
They should have either a) announced the incident themselves when they reported it to the league; or b) arranged to have the story leaked to a friendly reporter who would write about it responsibly.
Had the Wizards and Arenas gotten the story out first, they would have been in control of the narrative and their version of the facts would have established the lasting impression. Plus, the act of coming forward voluntarily would have created the impression of openness and transparency, which are extremely important factors in establishing public credibility. Letting Vecsey break the story was a huge mistake.
The “stay silent and hope no one finds out about it” approach often comes from relying too heavily on the advice of lawyers. Attorneys almost always prefer for nothing to be said to reporters, because they fear that any public statement could ultimately hurt them in legal proceedings. These concerns become particularly strong in criminal cases, such as this one.
But, for pro sports teams, public perception is critical, and that perception should be managed aggressively, even during a criminal investigation. Announcing the basic facts, coupled with tangible actions (more on that in a minute) would have gone a long way toward softening the P.R. blow.
Unfortunately, they compounded the initial mistake by making others. They blundered when they let Arenas talk to reporters without having a defined message. Arenas lied (or at least stretched the truth) when he told reporters he brought in the guns to get them away from his kids. There was no problem with letting Arenas talk to reporters, but the team should have had a P.R. guy babysitting him to shut down any comments that strayed away from the message the team was already delivering about the incident.
I'm aware that Arenas may have lied to the front office about the nature of the incident. I've had that happen to me -- company executives withhold information or tell me outright untruths. Still, the team should have had a thorough and quick investigation to figure out what happened. Every one of those players who ultimately talked with D.C. police should have been long-since interviewed by a team-hired investigator.
The team should have done something concrete early to demonstrate they were taking the incident seriously. Maybe Arenas should have turned in all his guns back in December. Maybe Arenas should have issued an apology like the one published after he pleaded guilty -- but back in December. Maybe the team should have put Arenas on indefinite suspension right away, or (better) placed him on the inactive list pending the outcome of the investigation. The important thing was to be seen as taking action to address a serious issue. Taking action also would have removed Arenas from the limelight, gotten him away from reporters, and prevented the silliness that finally did result in David Stern stepping in.
And they should have shut down his Twitter account immediately.
The team needed to be aggressive (at least via phone calls and emails to reporters) about correcting mischaracterizations and factual errors. When a reporter gets something wrong, call them up and tell them. With the volume of coverage, it's a big job, but that's why teams have P.R. staff. It won't fix the article that just came out, but there's a chance the reporter will get it right the next time he writes about it.
The team also needed to reach out to fans -- especially season ticket holders -- early and often. Provide updates. Let them know what actions the team is taking. Tell them directly about developments. It's easy to do nowadays with e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, the team’s webpage, text messaging, etc. Plus, whatever message the team puts out gets amplified by mainstream media reporting it.
In effect, the team should constantly beat the media to the punch in reporting the latest news on the crisis. Putting out a nothing statement after the fact makes management look slow, stodgy, out of touch, and even a bit dishonest and disingenuous. This doesn’t mean revealing every lurid detail, but the team should be out front every step of the way. Because that’s when the team gets to present developments in the manner most favorable to the team. Once the media gets its teeth into the story, the team is boxed into reactively answering questions. Reporting information before the press has it gives the team the chance to be proactive.
When there's a big incident like this, the battle for public opinion is often shaped by emotion, visuals and grand gestures. Arenas and the Wizards needed to come across as being authentic, having integrity and "doing the right thing." They needed to manage facts and perceptions. By that, I mean that they needed find ways to have the facts presented in the manner most favorable to them.
But, they didn't. And so, instead of looking open, forthright, accountable and responsible they look incompetent, out of touch, foolish and dishonest. They looked like they were trying to hide. They most assuredly did not look like they did the "right thing" at any point in all this.
Kevin Broom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.