If ever you’re compared to the Hindenberg, it’s a safe bet to assume something went terribly, terribly wrong.
That was how one CNN anchor described his network’s exclusive interview with Donald Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Last month, Sterling was banned for life from the National Basketball Association, including his own team’s games, after audio recordings surfaced of him making racist statements. After weeks of silence, Sterling agreed to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper on Monday.
As he sat with Cooper sans handlers, the 80-year-old Sterling seemed unaware he was plummeting from frying pan to fire. He tried to blame his woes on Magic Johnson, the NBA hall-of-famer he insulted in the first place and who, Sterling said, told him everything would be all right. He admitted that his original comments were made in pursuit of sex with a woman 50 years his junior. Worst, he made another seemingly racist statement about African Americans’ philanthropic efforts, or lack thereof.
“What this was to PR, the Hindenberg was to blimps,” CNN’s Bill Weir said, while The Washington Post grimly noted it was “a study in damage control gone wrong.” Variety said Sterling “gave the impression of somebody who was not mentally clicking on all cylinders” and that “the erratic, strange performance…will be studied in crisis public-relations classes for years to come.”
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Donald Sterling, who may be long in the tooth but who still hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: “No Comment” is a PR strategy. Sometimes a situation is so incendiary that the only recourse is to lie low until the heat dies down. There are (at least) two hard-and-fast criteria for walking into the flames: be absolutely certain that your messages will clarify or put the crisis in context, and be able to deliver them expertly. In Sterling’s case, he failed on both counts.