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Jordans return creates a PR challenge in D.C.
Published October 29, 2001
For a solid portion of their business day, PR people typically find themselves pitching a client to the media.
And then there are atypical times when PR folks paradoxically try to maintain a distance between their client and the media.
Such is the case for Matt Williams, senior vice president of Washington Sports & Entertainment, the organization that runs the Washington Wizards. Williams faced the challenging PR task of screening Michael Jordan from the press as Jordan was deliberating whether to "unretire."
On Sept. 25, the members of the sports media received official confirmation of the big story they had been expecting to write: Jordan was returning to the NBA. Jordan had tipped his hand during a Sept. 10 interview with The Associated Press in which he claimed, "I'm doing it for the love of the game."
The ambiguous statement begged the question, did "it" refer to Jordan's working out, or did "it" mean he was returning to the NBA? The media interpreted "it" as the latter and then began reporting that Jordan's return was imminent.
Similar to his first return to pro basketball, Jordan again chose not to make a big media splash to officially announce his comeback. In 1995, the media received a fax that simply stated, "I'm back."
Jordan's second comeback was planned to have a bit more PR sizzle. The Wizards scheduled a news conference for Sept. 20. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 led Jordan and the Wizards to rethink this formal public announcement. The news conference was canceled and replaced with a simple news release written by SFX, Jordan's management agency, that was faxed and e-mailed to the media Sept. 25.
The release was distributed relatively late in the day, yet the next day virtually every newspaper in the country had the news of Jordan's comeback either on its front page or on page 1 of its sports section. USA Today devoted four of its 12 pages in the Sports section to Jordan. The story led the Money section.
Along with the announcement of his return, the release stated: "Out of deep respect for [the Sept. 11 victims and their families], I will not participate in media interviews before the start of training camp on October 1."
Despite that clear statement, Williams was immediately inundated with requests for interviews with Jordan. On a daily basis, Williams' voice-mail system reaches maximum capacity and his e-mail in box is flooded. To date, Williams and SFX have granted no one-on-one interviews with Jordan.
Jordan, who is one of the most media-savvy professional athletes, calls a lot of his own PR shots. He had kept his decision to return private, not even telling Williams until the eleventh hour. Williams, however, was not caught off guard. In an AP story that ran early Sept. 25, he said, "We're prepared for Michael's announcement, whenever that may be."
Williams was also prepared for another item. He held off printing the cover of the Wizards' media guide until the very last moment. Jordan appears on that cover.
At the Wizards' media day Oct. 1, roughly 500 media professionals showed. Compare that number with the 100 who attended the opening of the team's training camp a year ago. And consider that the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers drew about 125 members of the media for their media day this year.
Jordan spent a half-hour answering questions in a news conference-type atmosphere and granted no exclusive interviews. The next day, at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, 250 media outlets visited the small campus for the Wizards' first day of training camp. Williams recalled at least 15 television station satellite trucks occupying most of the Trask Coliseum parking lot.
Such is the appetite for information on Jordan that The Washington Post has hired a Jordan beat writer who, according to PRWeek, "will be a daily observer — on the court and in the locker room — of how [Jordan's] play and mood change as the stress of the season increases."
As Tuesday's season opener vs. the New York Knicks drew closer, Jordan asked Williams to continue to keep the media at a distance so he could concentrate on basketball and trying to help the Wizards win. For the Wizards' home opener Saturday vs. the Philadelphia 76ers, Williams expects to grant about 500 press credentials and to use the MCI Center's upper press box to accommodate the media overflow.
Wayne Henninger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-founder of Sports Wave in Washington, D.C.