On August 23, the South China Morning Post ran a story quoting LeBron James, basketball star of the LA Lakers, commentating about President Trump’s call for a boycott of Goodyear because the company banned workers from wearing MAGA hats. Part of Le Bron’s statement defending Goodyear said, “… We don’t bend, and we don’t break for nobody…” Referring to LeBron’s statement, Fox News’s Will Cain tweeted “Except the Chinese Communist Party.”
Cain’s tweet referred to a statement LeBron made almost a year ago regarding the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. It is a prime example about the dangers of using current athletes for PR or marketing purposes.
In October 2019, James criticized Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, for tweeting his support of the freedom-seeking Hong Kong demonstrators.
Morey posted a graphic that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Chinese authorities immediately reacted with anger and sanctioned the National Basketball Association (NBA).
James responded with a tweet:
“I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand…So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually…”
According to media reports, James signed a lifetime endorsement deal with Nike in 2015 that may be worth more than $30 million a year. China is an important market for Nike. With his tweet, James seemed to side with his personal business interests over freedom. He also embroiled himself in an international political issue.
James’s tweet contradicted his previous positions favoring freedom of speech. In January 2018, the multiple brand endorser quoted Martin Luther King Jr, when he said:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but think his shoe deal sponsorship might have influenced his criticism of Morey
Downside of Athlete Endorsements
James’s take on the situation in Hong Kong should be taken as a warning to PR and marketing professionals who automatically think of using sports stars to endorse their products. Unlike athletes of the past, many of today’s sports celebrities have no compunction about issuing controversial political comments that may contradict a brand’s image.
That’s my main problem with the knee-jerk reaction by many in our business who favor using athletes of the moment as brand spokespersons in advertising, marketing and public relations. Many athletes’ actions and comments can unintentionally drag a brand into negative media coverage. Also, some athletes hawk so many brands that a person often needs a scorecard to remember which athlete represents which brands.
I am not a big fan of using athletes for publicity programs, even though I have done so for many years.
Many Reasons to Avoid Current Sports Stars for PR Purposes
There are obvious reasons why using current sports stars as publicity generators should be avoided.
1 – Prowess on the sports fields does not prevent misbehavior from being reported in the media.
2 – Why risk having a company or its product represented by athletes who have misbehaved, or might misbehave, when there are so many other options.
3 – Some athletes represent so many products that consumers and the media don’t take their endorsements seriously.
4 – During interviews, reporters concentrate on the athlete’s achievements and often don’t mention the product being hawked.
5 – Most of the time the story will say something like, “So and so is a spokesperson for the XYZ Company” and then delve into sports topics. Some PR people think that’s a good placement. I don’t. Unless the story contains some client talking points, I consider it a strike out.
6 –In the past, when sports stars weren’t making so much money, it was easy to make certain that the athletes would not say anything controversial. Today, it’s impossible to keep athletes from expressing opinions and/or becoming activists in cultural and political causes, occasionally dragging their unhappy sponsoring brands into the story.
7 – Current athletes probably have been written about many times regarding their play on the field, making it highly unlikely that journalists would do a story just because of a product endorsement deal. These types of stories usually end up in trade pubs or, if the endorsement deal is huge, in business sections of dailies, not the sections consumers read most.
8 – Most of the stories revolving around athletes are devoid of the client’s talking points, because they are irrelevant to the reporter.
9 – In order to make an athlete endorsement work for the client it must be supported by an expensive advertising campaign.
10 – And most important, athletes are prone to express opinions about issues that can offend consumers.
A prime example of point 10 was James’s statement criticizing Morey for his tweet supporting pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. It prompted criticism from liberals and conservatives, accusing him of putting money above freedom because of his Nike relationship.
One remark tarnished James’s carefully honed image as a proponent for justice. He had to make a clarifying statement, as so many others do after they make remarks that draw criticism.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct Draws Negative Publicity
People in our business know that using a celebrity spokesperson is an easy method to gain publicity. They also know that athlete brand representatives often draw negative publicity for unsportsmanlike conduct and that client talking points are few and far between in interviews with athlete endorsers.
Past negative press coverage of many other “name” athletes, including Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) and Tiger Woods, explains why clients should think many times before using current or recently retired athletes. And they’re not the only ones: Antonio Brown, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, Michael Phelps, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, Marion Jones, Pete Rose, Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Braun and two pitchmen who were considered world-class inspirations as role models, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius, are other examples of athletes that good citizen companies might regret having had as product endorsers.
Protecting Brands from Negative Fallout
I certainly am not advising to never use athletes as brand representatives. I used many athletes in brands’ publicity programs. But I did it in a way that, to the best of my ability, protected the client from negative fallout if the athlete engaged in unsportsmanlike conduct.
I did this by checking on the athlete’s behavior with sports writers I knew, and by researching the individual’s past to make certain that there weren’t negative incidents that might emerge during media interviews.
All too often when selecting an athlete to deliver the brand message, the deciding factor is the field stats. That’s wrong. The way an athlete acts outside the arena is more important when recommending an athlete spokesperson.
Also take into consideration how media coverage of sports has changed.
In years past, the media reported relatively few stories on athletes misbehaving. It had to be a major transgression. But things have changed. The attitude of “if it happens off the playing field, it’s not a sports story” has long disappeared. The days when writers would cover up the antics of a Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle are in the distant past.
The most prominent athletes of the moment are not necessarily the best choices to deliver the client’s messages. Current athlete product endorsers are a dime a dozen and most are available to beat reporters every day.
The Case for Former Athletes
The athletes best able to disseminate brand talking points during media interviews are former stars who have been out of the media spotlight for a while. That’s because the media is happy to interview stars of the past, nostalgia being a big part of sports coverage. It’s easier for someone not on the sports scene for a number of years to tell a reporter what they are doing now and work in client talking points. And reporters are more likely to weave the talking points into articles as a favor to the old-timer. These old timers are also less likely to get into trouble than the stars of today.
Pitching a current star as a brand publicity spokesperson is likely to end up with the reporter saying, “There’s nothing that can be said that hasn’t been said all season long.”
I’ve used current players and past stars during publicity campaigns. If I had to choose a “star of the moment” or a “star of the past,” my choice has always been go with the past.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.