On July 8th, 2010, LeBron James made a bad Decision. He and his team orchestrated one of the most overly-elaborate and poorly-received television specials in recent memory, breaking the hearts of millions on live TV as he announced his intention to take his talents to South Beach and leave the fans in Northeast Ohio in the cold. The backlash was immediate and fierce, culminating in a prolonged national hatred for the well-meaning sports giant. The best basketball player on the planet was now one of the least liked. The pride of Akron, OH was now (according to Forbes) the #2 most disliked athlete in the country. What did he do to combat his severely beaten image?
Sometime during the next several months, LeBron James made a very good decision.
There's simply too much at stake for superstar athletes these days not to think more like politicians.
James hired Adam Mendelsohn as his publicist. Mendelsohn, a veteran political strategist, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Arnold Schawarzeneggar, and high-ranking communications guru, was just the man for the job. Mendelsohn — according to the website of his firm Mercury LLC — "specializes in brand, crisis, and media strategy" for Fortune 50 companies, CEOs, celebrities, and, yes, athletes. But his experience was in navigating the waters of the vicious and rapid political arena, and that's precisely the type of expertise post-Decision Bron needed more than anything. LeBron James was in the midst of an image CRISIS. A trip to the children's hospital was not going to solve his problems.
The parallels between managing politicians and managing high-profile athletes can be seen in the success of Mendelsohn's work with King James. It could be seen in the infrequency of LeBron James interviews-- only pinpointed outlets are able to get access to The Chosen One. It could be seen in the ever-changing public opinion of LeBron James-- hating LeBron almost became passé by 2013. But most obvious of all it could be seen in how LeBron James handled his second "decision"-- opting to release a carefully-worded statement through a trusted major media outlet. No television specials. No parties. No fanfare. Just LeBron James' uninterrupted message getting absorbed into the American sports consciousness.
Mendelsohn's presence didn't result in any immediate payoffs for LBJ's image, but the slow turnaround which culminated in today's national slurp-fest proves his success. The city of Cleveland — who only four years ago were burning effigies of LeBron — have welcomed him back with open arms and tears of joy. Even as recently as a month ago this scenario seemed impossible, yet here we are. LeBron James Benedict Arnold'd his second team in four years and almost every word written about him has been positive. How "big" of him it was to forgive Dan Gilbert, the Cavs owner who famously kept an anti-LeBron letter written in Comic Sans featured on the team's website. How much he must "really love" the people of Ohio to put Miami's beautiful weather, beautiful people, and track record of four consecutive NBA Finals appearances in his rearview. How much LeBron James has "grown as a person".
These changes in public opinion don't happen by accident.
Adam Mendelsohn, when talking to the San Francisco Chronicle last year about crisis communication stated, "It's not about response after [something bad] happens. It's about anticipating [something bad] before it happens." This seems to be the strategy Mendelsohn has deployed in regards to all things LeBron James. He forced King James to tread lightly and think more strategically when it came to his messaging, whether it be coming directly from Bron or a writer's keyboard. Remember that time LeBron did that embarrassing LA Times photo shoot where he wore those silly all-white costumes? No, you don't. Because that was Kobe Bryant and present-day LeBron wouldn't be caught dead being that vulnerable to a photographer's "vision".
As sports news gets even faster and the consequences for a mishandled quote, Tweet, article, picture, Vine, and Instagram get even more dire, the need for athletes to employ the Adam Mendelsohn's of the world will only increase. There's simply too much at stake for superstar athletes these days not to think more like politicians.
In the end both politics and professional sports are about money; it's just the job of people like Adam Mendelsohn to wrap that reality in something more digestible. Whether it be getting a politician to say her candidacy is about the kids or getting LeBron James to say his team-swapping is about Ohio, when it's all said and done the bottom line is the bottom line. Everybody wants a max contract.