It seemed as if billionaire Donald Sterling apparently didn’t have enough money left after buying apartments, cars and dresses for V. Stiviano to pay for appropriate legal or communications advice before his exclusive interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. We don’t know that to be the case, but it’s the obvious conclusion based on the Los Angeles Clippers owner’s disastrous attempt at exoneration during a May 12 segment of Cooper’s nightly program, AC 360. Sterling broke just about every rule of crisis communications during his taped and edited interview with Cooper, starting with a half-hearted apology for those racially offensive remarks that were surreptitiously recorded by Stiviano during a private discussion. Channeling Richard Nixon, Sterling three times declared, unconvincingly, “I am not a racist” as he fumbled to explain why he ranted in an audio recording about his disapproval of Stiviano being seen with black men at Clippers home basketball games. “Twenty-five percent of my whole game are black people and I love them. I can’t explain some of the stupid, foolish uneducated words that I uttered.”
The interview went downhill from there, with Sterling rambling from subject to subject. He had no apparent goal except to somehow look sympathetic to viewers. He failed. Here are some of the most important rules of crisis communications broken by Sterling during his time on camera: 1. Apologize sincerely, then move on to say what you are doing to ensure the transgression never happens again. Announce that you are entering rehabilitation, meeting with the group you have offended to make amends, or taking sensitivity training. But you must demonstrate that you are effecting concrete steps to correct your future behavior. Sterling apologized to his 29 fellow NBA franchise owners and to Commissioner Adam Silver but neglected to say what he would do to improve. 2. Make a sacrifice. Whether you are wealthy or not, you must give something up as a gesture of your commitment to seek forgiveness from the people you have offended. If you offend the African-American community, a generous contribution of money and your personal time to an inner-city charity may be in order. If you offend a religious group, a donation to a church or charitable group is appropriate – and the bigger the offense, the larger the gift should be. In Sterling’s case, we’re probably talking millions of dollars and hundreds of hours. 3. Ask forgiveness from those whom you have offended. Sterling assumed that NBA players, owners, fans and everyone in America would understand his plight and give him a pass because he is a well-intentioned 80-year-old billionaire with a big mouth. He skipped a major step when he forgot – or didn’t bother – to ask.
4. Never blame others for the crisis you have created. Sterling claimed Stiviano baited him into making his racially offensive comments. Then he said she wasn’t really a bad person and moved on to gratuitously criticize NBA Hall of Famer-philanthropist-businessman Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “What does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything. He acts so holy. He made love to every girl in every city in America and he had AIDS,” Sterling said. “Is he an example to children? He should fade into the background.” With these statements, Sterling created another crisis for himself and for the NBA. 5. Never blame the news media. Sterling claimed that NBA players and owners still like him and that he has received “thousands of phone calls” of support from friends and colleagues. Who then is attacking the Clippers owner for his remarks? “It’s the media that’s out to get me,” Sterling said. Cooper and all the journalists watching the interview or seeing the subsequent news reports are now his foes, even those who weren’t before he made that comment. Appearing on CNN immediately after the jaw-dropping interview, African-American filmmaker Spike Lee perhaps summed it up for all communications experts when he said of Sterling: “Why do they let him speak? Who’s around him?” Who, indeed?
Gene Grabowski is a crisis communications expert with 30 years’ experience advising athletes, celebrities and business people about issues management. He is a former reporter for The Associated Press and The Washington Times.