Over the years, sports fans have seen many athletes who have garnered intense media coverage and created their own personal brands. From Babe Ruth to Muhammad Ali, to Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, every generation produces one or two almost mythical figures that transcend sports and make an impact on the larger culture.
In recent years, LeBron James has emerged as this generation’s transcendent star. James’ on-court ability was never in doubt. From the day he stepped on an NBA court for the first time, still a teenager, his talent set him apart from all of his contemporaries. For a variety of reasons, however, James was not universally popular during the first half of his career. His status as a controversial figure reached its highest point after “The Decision,” a made for television event where James famously declared who he would be leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and “taking his talents to South Beach,” a spectacle that did not go over well with fans.
But from nearly the moment “The Decision” ended, James began to repair his image. He succeeded so completely that he is now one of the most popular and beloved athletes in the world. How did he do it? What allowed James to go from a polarizing public figure to a PR superstar? Here are just a few of the steps he took:
Facing controversy head-on
Shortly after “The Decision,” James recorded his “What Should I Do?” commercial, in which he asked rhetorically if he should make decisions based on what others expected of him. The spot cast James in a humanizing light and also showed he wasn’t afraid to address his departure from Cleveland directly.
Using humor to his advantage
The fact that a YouTube video called “Top 10 LeBron James Funny Commercials” exists should tell you something about his history of using humor as a way to build his personal brand. One of the best examples of James’ showcasing his sense of humor was a spot he filmed with comedian Kevin Hart that revolved around the basketball player’s less-than-stellar golf swing. Not only was the commercial funny, but it also demonstrated James’ willingness to laugh at himself, an endearing trait that many celebrities don’t possess.
Another hallmark of James’ life in the spotlight has been his constant evolution and willingness to take chances. He has appeared in feature films, hosted ESPN’s ESPY awards, taped public service announcements, appeared in televisions shows and produced content through his digital media company. Most recently, James launched his HBO show, “The Shop,” which is billed as “unfiltered conversation and debate from the biggest names in sports and entertainment.” Like anybody successful in any venture, James is always trying new ways to create content and reach audiences beyond basketball fans.
Publicly expressing his opinions
Many of the most famous athletes of all-time have been reluctant to get involved in social causes for fear of alienating fans and suffering financially. Over the past several years, however, James has opted to make his opinions known on a wide variety of social and political issues. Predictably, his viewpoints riled some observers, but most, even those whose views differed, admired his courage and conviction.
Let’s be honest—generosity and philanthropy are almost always good for PR, whether that is the true goal of the work or not. James has an entire section of his website dedicated to his philanthropic work and has made his foundation a critical part of his personal brand. Most recently, the foundation worked with the Akron Public Schools to open the “I Promise” school for at-risk 3rd and 4th graders. The school provides children with:
- Free tuition
- Free uniforms
- Free breakfast, lunch and snacks
- Free transportation within two miles
- A free bicycle and helmet
- Access to a food pantry for their family
- Guaranteed tuition for all graduates to the University of Akron
This latest project was perhaps James’ most impressive yet, drawing national praise from every corner of society, including a congratulatory tweet from Michelle Obama.
Even though LeBron faced some difficult PR challenges, his strategic thinking and perseverance allowed him to build an incredible brand. You can apply these strategies to your organization and become an all-star PR pro!
Plus, well, he’s a pretty good basketball player.
Until next time!
Eric Lebowitz joined Critical Mention in 2018 as its Director of Marketing. A native New Yorker, he originally began his career in journalism and later moved to marketing, discovering a passion for branding and analytics. Eric brought a background in content marketing, marketing measurement and marketing automation, having previously co-founded and managed his own agency. In his spare time, Eric loves to play as much golf as possible at courses across the country.