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L'affaire de Donald: three PR observations on the Donald Sterling debacle

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In the exclusive echelon of professional sports team owners, Donald Sterling has been regarded as notoriously inept for decades. Since his 1981 purchase of the San Diego Clippers, the franchise has made the playoffs only seven times.

You may not recognize the team's San Diego connection--Sterling relocated the team to Los Angeles in 1984, in the process thumbing his nose at National Basketball Association rules prohibiting such a move without permission. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Under his ownership, the team racked up the worst winning percentage of any major sports franchise. In other words, not only have he Clippers been at the bottom of the NBA barrel, but they have been a model of futility for the nearly 100 teams in Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League.

By now, of course, you most likely know that this team's feeble track record is not why Sterling has saturated the news. Neither is it because he turned 80 this past week--how much fun do you suppose that particular bash was?

No, Donald Sterling, Chicago-born and L.A.-raised, is dominating the news cycle and sending comedy writers scurrying for late-night material because of foolish and flagrantly racist stuff that he said. He uttered his ridiculous and offensive comments to a girlfriend in private settings, apparently unaware that she was goading him on while capturing it all on audio.

She shared his ramblings with TMZ.com, and the fallout from that includes NBA commissioner Adam Silver imposing a lifetime ban on Sterling from the league, fining him $2.5 million and launching a concerted effort to force him to relinquish ownership of the team. (Sterling, who began as a lawyer, may not be so cooperative, meaning this could be headed for protracted litigation.)

According to media reports, Sterling's girlfriend-turned-nemesis, V. Stiviano, recorded hours upon hours of their private conversations on audio. So this many-tentacled saga is far from over. Already the subject of massive reporting, analysis, dissection and speculation, l'affaire de Donald highlights some PR and marketing lessons:

1. Reputation Matters

Just as Al Capone didn't go to prison for all of the murder and mayhem that he wrought--instead, the government nailed him on income tax evasion--Sterling's well-earned reputation as a racist is clearly a factor in the speed and fury with which the league has lowered the hammer. He had scant, if any, goodwill banked up with the powers-that-be. As a result of being on thin ice already, when the heat turned up on him, he almost immediately began drowning in the consequences.

In Chicagoland, there are organizations that are better equipped than others to weather storms of negative publicity that might occur. Those who are regarded as "good corporate citizens" and have been gracious and generous in supporting their communities and in treating their employees with respect are much more apt to bounce back from a scandal.

The same principle holds true for individuals. If you treat people with respect and kindness, then your slip-ups--a DUI arrest, a poor choice of words in a public setting (or even privately, nowadays)--can be overcome.

2. The Power of Audio

Over time, we will learn if there is any video of Sterling during one of his jaw-dropping diatribes.

But for now, this chapter in PR nightmare history demonstrates the potency of audio in an age where video supposedly reigns supreme. It also underscores the importance of recognizing that anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. Were these recordings of Sterling legally made? California, where they occurred, is a two-party consent state, meaning that by law he had to be notified that he was being recorded. Stiviano reportedly apprised him that their conversations were being recorded, though that remains to be seen (or heard).

Regardless, it's safe to say that Sterling self-inflicted enormous damage through his spoken words. So guard your words, even if you believe that what you are saying is somehow exempt from public consumption and potential condemnation.

3. Timing is Pivotal

When the news broke about Sterling and the recordings, the NBA playoffs had just begun. His team was in the midst of its opening series against the Golden State Warriors. The only way for the timing to have played an even more crucial role would have been if the Clippers were deeper in the playoffs--a scenario that was uncertain, since the Warriors are no push-over.

To minimize what had already become a major distraction and the equivalent of PR anthrax from growing on an exponential scale, it was clear that the NBA had to move swiftly and strongly. The league benefits when the exciting playoff match-ups on the court takes center stage, not the ravings of some Archie Bunker-on-Steroids. Those ravings are still a distraction, but the NBA's forceful action was not only the (overdue) right thing to do, but smart PR.

By the way, did you know that the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets had three overtime thrillers in their first four games? Or that the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder topped those nail-biters by setting a league record with four consecutive overtime games?

That's just a fraction of the compelling action that the Sterling saga has overshadowed. That shadow continues to loom over the league's landscape--and over much of our country's conversation on a slew of related topics: the limits of privacy, generational biases, the perils of extramarital infidelity, and the hypocrisy of organizations (like the NAACP in this instance) rewarding people based solely on their financial support while ignoring issues of character.

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