LeBron James: A media company with a PR problem

LeBron James' famous Nike adWe’re all media companies these days. Technology has given us that. It’s the “Great Horizontal” as tagged by Jay Rosen, that hyperconnected universe of individual publishers and broadcasters.

Famous people have taken notice and find that being their own media company has its benefits. Remember how Ashton Kutcher became the first celebrity to hit a million followers on Twitter in 2009? That’s a drop in the bucket these days. Ashton found that he could “talk” directly to his fans with Twitter, and he’s been very smart about it. Athletes, politicians, singers, musicians, artists, poets, authors, anybody can take advantage of the tools of personal media to get their word out, for free.

But as traditional media companies can tell you, there are certain responsibilities that come with the power to address a BIG group of people, because intentions don’t communicate, only behavior. This is especially true when people can react to that behavior and share it with everybody else. It may be easier to protect the stages of big media, but that begins with a very basic understanding about that stage’s responsibilities within the bigger picture in order to keep people coming to watch your production. Being a media company is a responsibility before it is a mouthpiece, because the audience is the one who makes the decision whether to accept the message or not.

This is why most media companies specialize in public relations. Hell, it’s the flip side of the coin of journalism, and we all know that’s true. We’re all selling something, be it a story, a point-of-view or — and perhaps especially — ourselves.

As athletes go, LeBron James is a pretty strong brand, but he has a serious personal image problem. He’s got natural gifts that we’ve never seen before in one package, and that has been hyped since he was a boy. Unfortunately, his image doesn’t match his behavior, and rather than work on that, James continues to make one foolish PR mistake after another.

There was promising championships for Cleveland and not delivering. There was “the decision,” which was so wrong in so many ways. There was the big stage presentation where he was “introduced” in Miami, sort of a celebration before the victory. There was the anticipointment generated by promising “not five, not six, not seven…” championships. What a boneheaded thing to say. He’s referred to himself as “King James” in text messages. Now there’s the haughty and condescending snub of basketball fans who had the temerity to criticize him during the NBA Finals.

“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.”

He’s about to enter unchartered waters in terms of forever screwing up the gifts he’s been given, and no course correction is going to help him. That’s because Life is the author of character, and in personal media — when it’s just you — you can’t turn to a “team LeBron member” for advice before opening your mouth. It’s either in you to say the right thing, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, don’t worry. Life will teach you, but only if you have a teachable spirit. You can’t play a role, read a book or take a course. Humility is its doorway, and that’s buried deep within the human soul.

As a huge fan of the Dallas Mavericks, I’ve watched as the national sports media has had a field day with James’ performance, while the superior basketball team picked apart the individual talents of the Miami Heat. Somebody wrote that James can’t experience failure, because he doesn’t know what it is. That’s an apt description of a character defect so enormous that it spills out into his efforts to control the message.

I teach my students that it’s all about your personal brand, and that to behave ethically these days demands a vast understanding of the big picture and their role within it. That includes responsibilities. There is no set of rules to memorize, absent, perhaps, the Golden Rule, that perfectly fits every situation, but we must always remember that everybody’s watching.

There are both benefits and opportunities in the Great Horizontal, but perhaps the most important thing is this: you simply cannot hide your real self, if you wish to play within this realm. There are no failures of talent, only character. My advice to LeBron is to work on that; the rest will happen automatically.

Thanks to Twitter follower TJ (@TJ2016) for the inspiration for this piece.

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