Walking the Fine Line: How the NBA Navigated Controversy in China
by Aidan Curran
by Aidan Curran
Ahead of a slate of preseason games set to be played in China and Japan, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey plunged the NBA into controversy. He posted a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protestors fighting for full autonomy from the Chinese government.
The tweet began a firestorm of conflict, as China swiftly denounced Morey’s tweet, and canceled several planned NBA charity events, as well as discontinuing online streams of the NBA preseason games in China. The backlash Morey received in China for supporting the human rights of the Hong Kong protestors was extreme and affected the bottom line of the NBA. China is an enormous market filled with avid basketball fans, and more importantly, represents a huge economic opportunity for the NBA.
While the NBA has sought to support its members’ right to free speech, angering such a large base of international NBA fans harms not only the growth of the game of basketball overseas but also the NBA’s bottom line. So how has the NBA walked this line, and what can be learned from a communications standpoint?
The NBA’s biggest issue was how to maintain its reputation as being a progressive and open-minded league that allows its players to speak their minds freely, without angering its Chinese fans and hurting its business opportunities in the market.
In a situation like this one, it’s important to turn to leadership to issue a message that can be echoed by other members of the organization. In response to Morey’s tweet, NBA communications officer Mike Bass first released a statement that was lukewarm in its defense of Morey, but after receiving widespread criticism for the statement, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stepped in and released a follow-up statement that strongly affirmed the NBA’s support for freedom of expression, and in doing so, supported Morey’s right to express his beliefs. By issuing two official statements, the NBA kept the conversation alive as it reacted to the backlash.
The league also limited press availability for its players, to limit their exposure to being asked questions about a topic many are unfamiliar with. Unfamiliarity with such a complicated topic could lead to insensitive, or inaccurate responses that could further anger either Chinese fans or fans back in the United States. In this case, the NBA took measures to limit this risk.
This strategy did not come without downsides though, as the Houston Rockets were criticized for censoring the media during a press conference with Rockets stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden in Japan.
In this case, rather than prevent the media from asking a specific question, the Rockets should have created talking points for Westbrook and Harden to use in response to such a question. Particularly in a crisis situation, organizations should try to anticipate lines of questioning and establish talking points in order to be prepared for the inevitable questions and not add more fuel to the fire.
In most crisis situations, it’s hard to emerge with your brand completely unscathed. There is often no perfect solution to weather the storm. In a case like this one, it’s important to rely on one set of talking points that comes from the top down that can be disseminated to employees and for media engagement. After all, your internal communications could get leaked in a crisis, and it is important that they are legally reviewed and can withstand public scrutiny. It’s also helpful to control the narrative by limiting exposure to media, to minimize the risk of handling questions poorly that employees, or players, in this case, are not prepared to handle. We also often counsel our clients to think in advance and have key executives media-trained and prepared. It’s easier to prepare for a crisis when not in one.
This issue is not going away soon, as the NBA looks to mend its relationship with China and the Chinese Basketball Association. The NBA’s handling of the situation, from a communications standpoint especially, will bear watching.
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