How the NBA’s China Crisis Highlights the Value of a Unified Message

Nov 5, 2019

As the NBA kicks of the 2019-2020 season, the league has found itself in the middle of a communications firestorm, and it has nothing to do with what’s happening on the court.

It all started with a tweet. On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the people of Hong Kong on Twitter, many of whom have found themselves amid a dangerous situation as some protests against the Chinese government have turned violent.

Hong Kong Protests Prompt a Crisis Situation

The years-long conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China is a sensitive issue for the NBA considering the league’s multibillion-dollar financial relationship with China. The NBA profits greatly by selling media rights, game streams, merchandise and much more to Chinese companies and citizens. Some estimate the Chinese market makes up as much as 10% of the NBA’s annual revenue.

Morey’s initial declaration of support for the people of Hong Kong on social media has since snowballed into a communications nightmare for the NBA. The league is comprised of 30 teams, each with their own coaching staffs and 15-player rosters. All of these teams operate somewhat independently, but still represent and reflect the NBA.

Overnight, nearly every high-profile NBA coach, executive, and player was asked about their own position on the Hong Kong conflict and what they thought about the league’s response. Some players voiced their support for the NBA and its relationship with the Chinese government. Some stood by the people of Hong Kong. Others, most notably the league’s most popular player, LeBron James, tried to straddle the fence. The incident is reminiscent of the NFL’s handling of Colin Kaepernick and other players taking a knee during the National Anthem back in 2016.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attempted to unify the message by issuing statements and going on NBA talk shows, but the damage had already been done. Silver said the league is now suffering from “substantial” financial losses from its games being pulled from Chinese airwaves, and the league’s image here at home has certainly been bruised.

A Lesson in Crisis Management

Had the NBA better controlled its message throughout the entire league and the many voices that speak for it, the league may have been able to reduce the amount of bad press. Instead, the fragmented and conflicted messages reverberating throughout the press from different teams, coaches and players only fanned the flames of the fire.

Long story short: When facing a crisis, make sure every division and manager in your organization is briefed, prepped and armed with talking points about the organization’s position on the issue. While political issues present a different challenge, unifying the messages coming from your organization can go a long way in controlling the narrative and limiting discrepancies that open up even more questions.

Power forward this message.

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