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July 01, 2011

Social in a negotiation: advice for NBA players and owners

by Josh Bernoff

Nba fight Early this morning, the NBA locked out its players in labor dispute. Unlike the NFL's lockout, the basketball players and owners appear to be very far apart, and there's every sign this will be a protracted dispute.

This raises a good question: in a highly publicized and polarized negotiation, how should the sides use social tools?

Note first that if a negotiation is on a positive track, it's best not to use social tools as a weapon. Better to continue making progress privately than antagonizing your negotiating partner in public.

But in the case of the NBA, there is every indication that we're in for an entrenched fight. Time to whip out the social strategy. As is often the case in a publicized negotiation, the consumers -- the public, the fans, and of course, the media -- can create pressure on one side or the other. This is why both sides in a negotiation use PR. But getting the fans behind you (or line up against your opponent) can happen quicker and more powefully than a traditional PR operation. 

Start by assessing your social and image assets and liabilities.

In the case of the NBA, the league itself is and is perceived as a big business right now -- and one that is involved in a labor dispute. The teams and owners are corporations and very rich individuals. This is not a position that creates sympathy. But the league has assets -- the teams have accounts and facebook pages that are, of course, extremely popular. This is a megaphone to the fan base, but more importantly, it's a way of listening to reaction. As far as I can tell, there is no NBA online discussion community run by the league -- if a team has one, please let me know about it. (There is a joint NBA NCAA youth basketball community, but that's not an appropriate place to conduct this outreach.)

The NBA players have a different set of problems. Of course, wildly popular players like LeBron James have twitter accounts (here's a nice list). But many of the players as a group have a reputation for living large, big egos, and bad behavior -- people love how they play but aren't necessarily sympathetic to them personally. And of course, the players' association, like the league management, generates no love.

This combination -- a dispute about the business of sports with a "millionaires vs. billionaires" dynamic -- means there's no place to go but up for both sides in terms of perception.

Here's what each side should do:

The league and the owners should create a listening command center to better understand not just public sentiment, but the terms and ideas that are resonating with the public. They should dedicate a team (or outsource to an agency) to responding to tweets, community posts, and the like, just as Comcast does with @comcastcares and its digital response team. That team needs to armed with the day's talking points and should post responses (authentically, representing themselves as league representatives). The league should enlist its best current assets -- the teams' Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and Web sites -- and get team PR representatives to respond in alignment with these points on these highly trafficked pages. Mark Cuban could be a help here -- he's notoriously independent-minded, but has a very popular blog (but hasn't posted since April!) and, of course, is now owner of the reigning NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.

As this negotiation drags on, the NBA should set up an online community where people can discuss their feelings. The league currently has its own site for labor news but of course you can't comment on anything there. Better to expand this to a community and deal with the discussion right there -- and maybe even some players will get drawn in. The alternative is to let all the discussion happen on ESPN.com and elsewhere where the NBA has no way to direct the content.

As for the players, they are of course several hundred very independent thinkers and don't have the online resources the league has set up. The first step here is to get talking points out to all the players, who can reach directly out to fans on their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and other channels. A set of similar messages from a variety of players would go a long way toward getting fans sympathetic to their position. Even better would be for the players' association to set up a site where players and fans could interact, and the union could explain its position. In the pitched PR battle that is this negotiation, such site could make a lot of difference in turning public opinion to the players' advantage.

The lessons here are not just for the NBA. Obama and the Republicans in Congress could use these sorts of tactics in the battle now happening over the deficit and the debt ceiling. Hostile takeovers, regulatory disputes, you name it: get the public on your side, and you can shift the dynamic. Let's see which side in the NBA lockout is smart enough to realize this.

Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr.





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Tungsten Rings

They had better get their act together. The NFL figured it out. I don't even know what would happen to the popularity of the NBA if the season gets shortened or doesn't happen at all. Probably wouldn't ever make it back to it's most popular times.

Mike Clark

Even the NBA got hit by this labor dispute. Good thing the season is already over, but they have to settle this before the start of the new season. If not, there is a possibility that Dallas won't have the opportunity to defend the title in May. For me and the millions of basketball fans, that's unacceptable.

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