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Sam Hinkie Situation Shows Leaders Can Never Turn Over the Narrative

April 13th, 2016

Last week, the Philadelphia 76ers said goodbye to Sam Hinkie, one of the most enigmatic and polarizing general managers in team history.

Hinkie took the reins of the storied NBA franchise less than three years ago, in May 2013, and embarked on what many considered the most radical experiment in American sports. While many diehard supporters believed in his plan and the “trust the process” mantra, Hinkie was notably secretive and avoided the press, which alienated beat reporters, basketball insiders and fans alike. Ultimately, the widespread backlash proved too much for the Sixers’ owners, and led to Hinkie’s resignation (or removal, depending on your perspective).

It has been a bizarre and fascinating story for sports fans, especially here in Philly, earning all the expected hot takes on ESPN and the requisite Twitter memes. But what lesson does this hold for communicators outside basketball circles?

In any business, there are consequences when an organization loses control of its narrative. As public relations professionals, we know that proactively telling our stories is critical to business success, but there are many situations where business leaders would prefer to stay silent or offer as little information as possible. Some executives view PR as a bother, a nice-to-have rather than a necessary part of building a brand, something to be done only when all the more important work is finished.

The Hinkie saga shows that’s anything but true. Without much public explanation of their unique philosophy and strategy, or even simply validating their audience’s concern, there was a vacuum of information, and pundits eagerly filled it with their own hot air. Instead of people talking about how the Sixers were building, all the conversation revolved around how they were tanking.

Let’s be clear – this certainly isn’t a reflection on the Sixers’ marketing team, which, in our opinion, is one of the best in the business. But we also frequently see that while businesses may be killing it at certain campaigns and on a number of different channels, executives in other departments can’t be convinced to see the value in PR.

Ironically, it was only through Hinkie’s leaked 13-page, investor letter-style resignation that we gained any actual insight into their former GM’s media relations approach, which appears to have been very much a conscious decision.

“We often chose not to defend ourselves against much of the criticism,” the letter reads, “largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room.”

In other words, he believed there to be a competitive advantage in staying quiet, and there’s certainly validity in that. Far be it from us to evaluate anyone else’s business strategy from afar, especially that of an analytics guru.

But what that strategy doesn’t take into account is the full opportunity cost. Businesses of all kinds have traditionally taken a similar risk-averse approach to PR, defaulting toward withholding information if there’s no reason to release it, rather than releasing it if there’s no reason not to. This is natural, but narrow-minded. In many cases, silence doesn’t just avoid risk – it runs the risk of making the organization appear arrogant, apathetic or even inept.

Furthermore, reducing communications to the absolute minimum may minimize the risk of saying something regretful, but it also misses any opportunity to gain allies and advocates through careful messaging. Unlike a professional sports season, publicity isn’t a zero-sum game. A smart communications approach considers the risks of speaking out, weighs them against the risks of not speaking, and then evaluates the potential rewards as well.

In fairness, Hinkie did admit that his lack of media relations created issues for the franchise, and steadily became more open over his tenure.

In May 2014, a year after joining the franchise, he made this admission of sorts: “I don’t spend a lot of time in the media, which sometimes I catch trouble for.” This past December, he was even more open, saying, “I’ve been quiet. And in that vacuum, people fill in with their own notions of me and what’s going on. If that has painted the organization in a bad light, I don’t like that.”

Finally, just the day before his resignation was announced, Hinkie’s most extensive and revealing interview yet was aired in an hour-long podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Tellingly, Lowe begins his questioning this way: “You have famously done not very much media since taking over in Philadelphia. Why are you on this podcast? What are you doing here?”

Hinkie again said that his goal was to more proactively communicate what the Sixers were doing, and he made a compelling case, but it was clearly too little too late. The next day, news broke of his resignation. The reporters who struggled for access over the years, not surprisingly, were quick to say good riddance.

Lowe addressed the odd timing himself in his follow-up podcast, and also discussed the situation with NBA analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy, who’s own analysis of the situation certainly rings true.

“I thought he should have been more media friendly, like a lot of these guys are who basically own the media, because I think it gets you the benefit of the doubt,” Van Gundy said, “and I think that benefit of the doubt is obviously critical when it comes to handling the losing Philly’s gone through and keeping ownership in your corner.”

We’ll never know if a more communications-friendly approach would have given Hinkie more time, and while the future of the Sixers franchise is very much undecided, the lesson for business leaders is very clear – tell your organization’s story, or you’ll let others do so for you. The ball’s in your court.

Posted Under: Storytelling
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