Why Not Even Olivia Pope Can Help Donald Sterling

Aside from the obvious fact that Olivia would not be welcome at a Clippers game (the character is played by African American actress Kerry Washington), there are a few tips any crisis expert would have advised.
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When people ask about the similarities between ABC's Scandal and consulting on crisis communications, I am quick to point out that huge sums of cash in briefcases are generally not at my disposal to buy off witnesses/complainants and I have rarely, if ever, seen a major scandal adequately addressed in 44 minutes. That said, Scandal is a wildly fun show, even if it is nearly all based in fantasy.

But even Olivia Pope cannot help Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling.

By now, news of Sterling's alleged racist rant, originally reported by gossip site TMZ, has spread across mainstream media. Though not a new category of allegation (Sterling was ordered to pay $2.7 million in 2009 to settle a housing discrimination suit) nor a surprise to those who know him (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted, "I know him. I know his voice. I am not surprised by this very much."), the complete failure to manage this scandal has left many scratching their heads.

Within the first 24-hours of the news breaking, Sterling and the Clippers managed to violate every top rule of crisis management. Instead, the scandal drip, drip, dripped though the weekend. In contrast, by Sunday afternoon, the Clippers bench had taken off their warm up jackets and turned their uniforms inside out in protest, and players across the league were playing in black socks as a sign of solidarity.

Aside from the obvious fact that Olivia would not be welcome at a Clippers game (the character is played by African American actress Kerry Washington), there are a few tips any crisis expert would have advised:

  • Take responsibility: A swift acknowledgement of responsibility, apology, and pledge for redemption is the first step in the face of a reputation and brand management crisis. What the public saw instead from Sterling's organization was a calculated statement by Clippers President Andy Roeser that questioned the authenticity of the tape and attempted to muddy the waters by connecting the audio's release to an ongoing embezzlement case between Sterling and his wife. Drip.
  • Address your constituents: Before or after issuing a public statement, an executive managing a scandal must immediately turn to his constituents. Strategies must be implemented to reach shareholders, employees, and customers to ensure messages are delivered directly -- not via media -- to maintain brand loyalty. Sunday's sun set without any evidence of Sterling addressing the team, or making any effort to connect to Clippers fans struggling with how to respond to the scandal. Drip.
  • Create a game plan: If Sterling is following a strategy, I'd love to see the play's white board. Despite his silence, condemnations have been issued by major figures in professional basketball including Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O'Neal. Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Chris Paul, a Clippers star player and president of the National Basketball Players Association, have issued strong statements. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated publicly that an investigation is ongoing. While Sterling's "team" discusses his next steps, his players and franchise continue to turn on him. Drip.

I assume that Sterling is too old, too rich, and too isolated to care too much about what people think of him. His history has certainly indicated as much.

It would be unfortunate if this distraction cost the Clippers the first-round NBA playoff series (now tied against the Warriors after a loss Sunday afternoon), but it wouldn't be the first time off-court shenanigans affected on-court performance. I would argue it would be more unfortunate if this moment passed without the NBA taking a strong, and definitive, stand against the racist comments allegedly made by Donald Sterling.

Sterling may soon issue an apology. He may sell his franchise. He may even take a page out of Dan Snyder's book and use some of his millions to invest in organizations dedicated to the advancement of the African American community in an effort to repair his image. But the damage he has done to his legacy, and the black eye he has given the team he has owned for several decades, is done. His failure to quickly address this scandal has cost him any chance he had of surviving it. Not even Olivia Pope could help him now.

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