Case studies of individual and corporate examples needing a strategy to present the image they desire offer insight into the way in which messages form the public perception.
The Seattle Supersonics were sold to a group from Oklahoma City. The team was previously owned by a group headed by Howard Schultz, Founder of Starbucks. Mr. Schultz and his group were local owners, and ultimately sold to Clayton Bennett and the Oklahoma City group because they could not get cooperation from the political structure in the State of Washington either at the local level or at the state level.
When Mr. Bennett became Chairman of the Sonics, he proposed a $500 million Events Center for the City of Renton. $300 million of that would be public money and the rest private. It was a reasonable proposal since the new Center would be used for many other events beside basketball. There was also the suggestion that an NHL Hockey Team could be brought to the Seattle region and use this arena.
When Mr. Bennett found the same intransigence with the political leaders as did the Schultz group, the sports talk programs and sports columnists began blaming the Bennett group for the likely departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Both the Schultz group and the Bennett group concluded that the present home of the team, Key Arena, was unsuitable for the contemporary needs of NBA basketball.
The criticisms in the media have been harsh and unforgiving of Mr. Bennett and his group. It is also true that the Bennett group has not responded adequately to these criticisms, many of which are unfounded.
Here are specific examples of the criticisms and the public responses that would have been helpful to the image of the Bennett group. Even if the team is leaving, it is important that there be an exit strategy to mitigate the negative press that has run free since the Bennett group has not responded.
1) The Bennett group was insincere in its proposal for a new Events Center.
Response: This was a legitimate proposal that would have created an arena creating a vibrant ongoing economy for the City of Renton.
Further, the public funds would simply come from an extension of an already existing tax enacted for Quest Field and Safeco Field (Seahawks and Mariners). This tax was not a general burden, but was specific in creating revenue from sources that come from users of the facilities or visitors from other areas,
2) The Bennett group supported a group that supported traditional marriage and was therefore anti-gay in its views. As a state with a large liberal population, this became an issue for the sports talk shows and sports columnists.
Response: This was not an anti-gay position. It was simply support of traditional marriage. This position was identical to that of Senator Patty Murray of Washington, one of the most liberal members of the United States Senate. In fact, she voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, the very same principle supported by the Bennett group. In addition, President Bill Clinton signed this act into law. Why should Clayton Bennett be condemned by liberals for a position held by two of the liberal community’s icons?
3) The Bennett group never intended for the Sonics to remain in Seattle and is therefore the villain.
This charge reflects a short memory in the Seattle media. The fact was that the local group headed by Howard Schultz sold the team in frustration with the political intransigence in the state of Washington on this issue. If a local group headed by a powerful local leader could not accomplish a new arena, how can anyone reasonably expect a group from another part of the country to be successful?
Further, the Bennett group appeared before the Washington State Legislature and brought luminaries including the long time basketball legend in Seattle, Lenny Wilkens and the legendary Bill Russell who lives in the Seattle area. If there was no intent to succeed in getting the Legislature to see the value of keeping the Sonics, why would these outstanding leaders, among others, have been part of the Bennett group presentation?
4) The Bennett group set a deadline of October 31, 2007 for a proposal to become reality or the team would exit this market. This was a position condemned in the Seattle media.
Response: The Speaker of the Washington State House made a comment of mockery regarding the Sonics proposal after the legislative meeting and specifically stated there would be no discussion in the legislative session about this proposal.
Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata basically stated that the Sonics offer nothing to the culture of Seattle. He later had to apologize, but his position was already clear. With these attitudes, the condemnation was appropriate for the political leaders, not the group proposing a new arena.
Problem: The sports journalists want the team to stay and are not interested in the factual dilemma facing any ownership group. Emphasis must be placed on the reality that there is no “magic wand” and that a husiness decision must be made. When the barrier to good faith efforts to keep the team in Seattle becomes insurmountable, it is time to make a clear and reasonable business decision. That is what the Bennett group has done.
These are just a few examples of the media lack of fairness on this issue of where the Sonics will play in the future.
The Bennett group had the factual basis on which to refute many of the media allegations in this case. They have the opportunity to leave Seattle, if that ultimately happens, with an image that would be far improved over what it is now. Much of that image exists because of a lack of a proactive Communication Strategy Campaign. There is still time to correct the record.