As crises go, this has been quite a spectacular one.
The National Basketball Association’s promotional tour of China has resulted in Chinese businesses cutting ties, state television vowing not to show matches, journalists being prevented from asking questions and multiple statements being issued.
The week of turmoil ended with the organisation taking the unusual step of cancelling all media access to players for the remainder of the tour.
The saga began when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey issued a seven-word tweet in support of Hong Kong on the eve of exhibition matches in China.
The infamous, now-deleted post, said: “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” and even though it could not be seen in China, it caused considerable damage.
The day after it was posted, the Chinese Basketball Association suspended cooperation with the team; China’s consulate in China urged the team to "clarify and immediately correct the mistakes"; and the sports channel of the country’s top broadcaster said it would no longer show the team’s matches.
When the NBA got involved, its first statement seemingly tried to appease both Chinese and US audiences and succeeded in upsetting both of them.
The Chinese felt it didn’t go far enough and translated it loosely to say more than the league had intended, while it was widely criticised in the US, with many arguing the league was putting money before human rights.
"Which is regrettable"???? Are you kidding me? What if a GM says he supports free speech or free elections or freedom of religion & it upsets such fans and friends? Do we say it is "regrettable?" This NBA statement is the only thing that is "regrettable" and worthy of an apology. https://t.co/mFtQmsdOuC— Gene Sperling (@genebsperling) October 7, 2019
.@NBA is throwing the GM of @HoustonRockets under the bus to please the Communist Chinese Govt.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) October 7, 2019
They allow #China to punish a U.S. citizen for free speech in order to protect NBA’s market access in China.
The continued backlash led to a second statement being issued 24 hours later from commissioner Adam Silver – not a good look for any organisation during a crisis media management incident.
In it, Mr Silver said: “It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.
"However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.
That lengthy statement was better, but it did little to appease the Chinese and all 11 of the league’s Chinese partners promptly ended ties with the organisation.
To make matters worse footage emerged of CNN journalist Christina Macfarlane being shut down by a media officer as she tried to ask a question about the situation during a press conference.
CNN anchor Christina Macfarlane was quickly shut down by the Houston Rockets' media officer as she tried to ask a question about the NBA's ongoing standoff with China https://t.co/X153kmN2tb pic.twitter.com/hQuKSzKDLl— CNN (@CNN) October 10, 2019
Ms MacFarlane later said about the incident: “It’s the biggest story of the week so I felt the question needed to be asked.
“I didn’t expect to have to defend my question and I didn’t expect the reaction to be so forceful. I said to the Rockets’ person that this wasn’t a good look for the NBA.”
Quite. The NBA did apologise for this in yet another statement and said that the reporter should have been allowed to ask the question.
But it followed this with a media shutdown, announcing that two other teams, the Log Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, would not talk with reporters for the remainder of their stay in China, ensuring its players could be seen but not heard.
NBA Yesterday: We should not have censored the reporter from asking the question, and we are sorry.— John (@Bearcat50) October 11, 2019
NBA Today: Yeah, no media access for anyone, so we no longer have to apologize for censoring any questions. 👻 https://t.co/kzzUdkXWWR
Translation: China has canceled all media access so the players won’t say anything the NBA would regret.— Mark The Shark (@MRaff57) October 11, 2019
What can we learn from this debacle?
Well, it is another example of the dangers that Twitter can pose for leaders. Mr Morey is far from the first leader to find that a few words posted on a social media channel can cause huge problems.
But with reports suggesting this could cause $25m in lost sponsorship revenue, it is probably one of the more costly posts, however well-intentioned.
No-one wants a highly sanitised Twitter feed, but when posting even a few words can trigger a crisis and cause a huge amount of damage, corporate brands may increasingly take a tougher line on what their executives post.
It may sound obvious, but when you are managing a crisis media management incident, you need to get your response right first time.
Issuing subsequent statements and clarifications adds to the impression of an organisation struggling to manage an incident.
Mr Silver’s second response, which was much stronger, began by criticising the statement his organisation had made 24 hours earlier. He said: “I recognize (SIC) our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for. Let me be more clear.”
Adding fuel to the fire
When you are dealing with a crisis media management incident you can’t afford to add fuel to the incident.
But that’s exactly what the Houston Rockets did when it blocked the journalist from asking a question at its press conference.
Moves like this again suggest that an organisation is struggling and do not help them create the impression of transparency they should be striving for.
This was an obvious question that should have been anticipated, so the league, the team and its players who attended the press conference should have been coached to handle this.
This was undoubtedly a difficult crisis to manage and one that other brands trying to break into the Chinese market will surely study. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the NBA took its eye off the ball in its handling of this episode.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
Click here to find out more about our practical crisis communication training.
Subscribe here to be among the first to receive our blogs.