Both sides in NBA impasse court support through social media

The NBA players' union is educating its membership on how to avoid committing social media fouls during the ongoing NBA lockout, which has forced the cancellation of the first two weeks of the 2011-2012 season.

The NBA players' union is educating its membership on how to avoid committing social media fouls during the ongoing NBA lockout, which has forced the cancellation of the first two weeks of the 2011-2012 season.

The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) is stressing to its members that they could lose the battle for public opinion with just one errant or inconsiderate tweet. The union is also instructing the players on how to use social media without making it seem like they're trying to win public sympathy, says Dan Wasserman, director of communications at the NBPA.

“We're not going to try to win the PR war; we're trying not to lose it,” he says.

The NBPA has also invited sports journalists for one-on-one meetings with its management to explain the association's proposals and positioning on the labor impasse, says Wasserman. The union is also making the players aware of the economic ramifications of the lockout, such as the loss of jobs for many who depend on NBA games for their own livelihoods, to make sure their Twitter and Facebook comments are “mindful.”

“We are very conscious of the fact that one unfortunate remark can be catastrophic to our efforts,” he says, “because ultimately the players are often painted with one brush, fairly or not.”

Both sides are using digital communications as a major component of their communications efforts. On the players' side, Los Angeles Lakers' guard Derek Fisher, the NBPA president, and New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul launched the “Let Us Play” Twitter campaign on Monday as “an expression of unity for the players,” says Wasserman.

The NBA, meanwhile, is publishing lockout updates on its website, including posting a Q&A guide to the lockout on NBA.com on Tuesday. The league declined to comment on its communications during the lockout. 

However, the players have a natural advantage in reaching consumers via social media, says Bill Holtz, managing partner at Catalyst Public Relations.

“The NBA has been putting out information through their social media channels,” he says. “Are fans as perceptive to it as hearing from the players? My guess is probably not. But to its credit, the NBA seems to be trying to share information.”

Negotiators for the league and its players' union have met numerous times in the past week, but were unable to reach an agreement. When NBA commissioner David Stern canceled the first two weeks of the season on Monday, he reportedly said the two sides were “very, very far apart on virtually all issues.”

Ken Luce, global COO at Hill & Knowlton, says he doesn't think the league or the players' association will see significant backlash until November 1, when the season was scheduled to begin. When arenas remain dark during scheduled games, the public will “really see how effective the communications strategies are for both teams,” he says.

The question of whether the lockout will be resolved in time to salvage at least part of the season is also affecting marketers that advertise during games and partner with the league on promotions. State Farm Insurance, a corporate NBA partner for the last two years, is in “constant communication” with the league, says Todd Fischer, manager of national sponsorships at the company. However, he downplayed the financial implications of the labor stoppage.

“The personal approach of conversations and phone calls has been a major part of all of this in terms of the behind-the-scenes business aspects,” he says. “Right now it doesn't have financial implications. We're proceeding with planning around the NBA season and other NBA properties as usual because we can't predict when the game will come back and we're optimistic about when it will.”

The league is also communicating frequently with ESPN, a major broadcast partner, says Chris LaPlaca, SVP of corporate communications at the sports network. He adds that ESPN will replace the 100 canceled NBA games with college football and basketball coverage, and the network remains “optimistic that both parties will come to a resolution.”

Brian Reinert, VP at Bender Helper Impact, says he would advise the NBA's partners to “wait and see” how the lockout progresses. However, he added that the NBA is in “a tough spot” because it's “not a thriving brand” compared to other sports leagues and the lockout is giving competitors an opportunity to attract its sponsors. To keep its business partners, Reinert says he thinks transparency is key for the league.

“It's a matter of making clear that everything is being pursued and they're trying to get back on track as best they can,” he explains.

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