A fundamental element in operating a successful public relations department is having blueprints in place to respond to varying scenarios. This is especially important for a sports organization, as most sports entities are susceptible to higher amounts of public scrutiny and media coverage.
Unfortunately for the Philadelphia 76ers, it is unlikely they had a plan in place for a potential scenario appropriately labeled: “Key Front Office Employee Accused of Using ‘Burner’ Social Media Accounts to Leak Delicate Information and Openly Criticize Star Players.”
If you aren’t familiar with the situation, this is a sports story for the ages and was first brought to light in a Ringer article by Ben Detrick.
While one can observe this highly entertaining story from a multitude of angles, let’s take a look at how the Philadelphia 76ers handled this situation from a public relations perspective.
Approximately one week before the story is released
The Ringer contacts the Philadelphia 76ers, specifically the public relations department and Bryan Colangelo, about some of the information that they were able to gather.
May 29, 9:08 PM: The Ringer publishes the online article.
This is, without a question, an example of crisis management for the 76ers’ public relations staff. A crisis for a sports organization is any event, incident, or issue that falls outside the realm of everyday management activities and poses a threat to the reputation of the organization.
When dealing with a crisis, there are generally a few absolute truths to assume.
- The battle for public support during the crisis is usually won or lost in the first 24 hours.
- The organization will probably lose the battle of public perception if representatives of the organization fail to develop specific procedures for early and regular communication with the public during the crisis.
- The more complex the crisis procedures, the less likely they are to succeed.
All three of these assumptions seemed to be true in this scenario.
May 30, around 9:00 AM: The Sixers release a public statement to media members.
“An online media outlet filed a story linking multiple social media accounts to 76ers President of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo. The allegations are serious and we have commenced an independent investigation into the matter. We will report the results of that investigation as soon as it is concluded”
While this is a practical first step – acknowledging the situation and laying out a basic course of action – this was the only public action the 76ers made throughout the first 24 hours.
24-Hour Window Closes.
No decision made.
While an investigation would understandably persist longer than 24 hours to conclude, the public had already formed their opinion and the brand of the Philadelphia 76ers had been slightly damaged.
This situation was highly complex, and the organization was supposedly caught off-guard. When addressing the three general truths about crisis management, the Sixers were unable to successfully handle the public relations nightmare within the all-important 24-hour window.
As the 76ers prepare to persuade free agents to join their young core in July, the timing of this crisis is alarmingly unfortunate. This certainly wasn’t the first time the 76ers were in the news for the wrong reasons. Botched handlings of injured players and a subsequent lack of media availability and information had plagued the organization in the eyes of the media and its audience in years past.
When managing a crisis, if a sports organization allows the media to exercise complete control over the release of the information, public opinion may spiral out of control.
As the 76ers hired third parties to investigate the situation, Twitter users were able to do most of the legwork. While three of the Twitter accounts “mysteriously” went private shortly after this story broke, one twitter account remained public.
Some preliminary investigating and common sense allowed the basketball world to conclude that Bryan Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Bottini, was primarily to blame for the single public Twitter account.
Most believed that this was enough information to move on from Bryan Colangelo as the team’s leading front office executive. Even if he had no knowledge of his wife’s twitter account, sensitive information was released to the public. Information that could land the organization in legal trouble.
One Week Later
Still no decision.
Had the organization been able to resolve the issue swiftly and professionally, or at least been able to further acknowledge the situation and its severity, the Sixers could have avoided some of the damage they sustained in the days following the “WooderGate” crisis.
Most public relations scholars suggest an open communication policy with the media and the respective audience. While that seemed highly unlikely for this rare situation, the Sixers still provided zero information, updates or resources regarding the investigation.
As the Sixers’ silence became deafening, some reports began surfacing stating that the Sixers are holding out hope that Colangelo would remain with the team.
Once again, this damages the organization’s credibility and image in that they would be willing to hold on to an individual who is either directly or indirectly responsible for leaking sensitive and compromising information.
June 7, 12:00 PM: The Sixers make their decision
The Philadelphia 76ers release a statement. Bryan Colangelo has resigned from his position with the organization. Eight days after the Ringer published their story, the Sixers have finally made a decision regarding this public relations nightmare.
Bryan Colangelo also releases a statement, attempting to sidestep most of the wrongdoing.
In a press conference later that day, 76ers Principal Owner Joshua Harris claimed he was unaware of the story until an hour before it was published.
This is a highly unique and difficult scenario for any public relations department to handle. While one can’t honestly evaluate the organization’s performance based off of the limited information at the public’s disposal, we can undoubtedly evaluate the timing, decisions and public reactions to the aforementioned events.
Lack of Communication Internally:
Assuming Harris’ comments were true, there was a major gap in the communication between the 76ers’ public relations department and key executives the week prior to the story releasing.
A situation as serious as this requires effective communication and awareness. Whether the public relations department overlooked the severity of the situation or other executives failed to contact the appropriate parties, the 76ers had an opportunity to prepare for this situation more adequately when they were notified a week prior.
Of course, Joshua Harris could have thrown the Sixers PR Department under the bus to save face. A strategy that is certainly believable.
Business as Usual?
When the story was published, the Sixers’ social media accounts went silent. After 48-hours of silence, the 76ers social media accounts went about their business as if nothing happened. They even released a statement with a quote from Colangelo as the investigation was taking place (below).
While Bryan Colangelo was conducting important meetings and pre-draft workouts, it was evident from the beginning that there was a substantial amount of truth in the Ringer article.
Though it could have been perceived as reactionary, the 76ers should have suspended their President of Basketball Operations while the investigation was taking place.
This allows the Sixers to distance themselves from this kind of behavior initially, while still granting the organization the proper time to conduct a concise investigation.
Instead, reports later surface that the Sixers were plotting a way to keep Colangelo despite the information leaks and player criticisms. This could damage the reputation of the organization and hurt their efforts in the upcoming free-agency circuit.
I had theorized that the Sixers would attempt to make their decision in the shadows of the NBA Finals. There were several big stories and subsequent conversations in the media that could have overshadowed Philadelphia’s decision, such as JR Smith’s Game One blunder, LeBron James’ reaction, or Steph Curry breaking the NBA Finals single game 3-Point record.
Yet the Sixers decided to break the story at lunch-time when the conversations regarding the NBA Finals were beginning to deteriorate and the results of the series were becoming increasingly evident.
It’s common knowledge that lunch-time, particularly West Coast lunch-time, is a great time to release information that you want the public to read, watch, know about, etc.
It would seem that my prediction was way off. The 76ers wanted the basketball world to be fully aware of the decision. The ability to separate themselves from an individual accused of such outlandish and team-detrimental behavior is incredibly important.
Had the organization decided to make this announcement while the world was distracted, perhaps misinformed consumers would misinterpret the organization’s decisions and therefore their brand.
This was a messy situation that was simultaneously handled brilliantly and disastrously.
In the end, it would seem that the Sixers made the right decision in moving on from Bryan Colangelo.
Though the 76ers were in the media for the wrong reasons for longer than a week, the resolution ultimately satisfied fans, media and most observers who favor common sense.
The great thing about today’s media landscape: People will forget about this blunder when the next big story hits. And with the NBA Finals still taking place, and NBA Draft and Free Agency on the horizon, my guess is the 76ers won’t have too wait long.
In life, people have the capacity to forgive and forget different occurrences. However, they never forget how you made them feel. And with this situation, especially considering the sports-crazed market of Philadelphia, fans and local media members will not soon forget how they felt this past week.
The lack of communication, awareness and empathy towards their fan-base and local media will not soon be forgotten…
Unless, of course, they find a way to sign a highly talented free agent…