GG’s David Kang explains how NBA star James Harden failed to stick to his key messages at a press conference and what communicators can learn from the gaffe.
When a superstar in the NBA requests to be traded to a new team, the entire basketball world is abuzz with excitement. Media, fans, players, and teams pay close attention to how the saga unfolds (and yes, it’s always a dramatic saga) until a trade deal is finished. A deal gets done, the superstar plays for a new team, and months of dramatic uncertainty come to an end. At least that’s how these sagas usually end, but not for James Harden.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest scorers in the NBA, James Harden requested a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers in June. Months later, the 76ers finally traded him away to the Los Angeles Clippers. So why did Harden’s first interview as a Clipper spark national sports media headlines and receive blistering criticism on social media?
One quote spread like wildfire: “I’m not a system player. I am a system.”
He spoke candidly about his experience with his former team, but it’s safe to assume that James didn’t intend for this specific quote to be highlighted and used out of context. Instead of leveraging the fresh start to present himself as a player ready to contribute to a championship-contending team, he ultimately (and unfortunately) came across as a selfish and self-absorbed player stuck in the past.
Did he mean to do this? Probably not. While NBA superstars may have different stakes when they field reporter questions, they aren’t the only ones who find media interviews to be challenging! Across different industries and organizations, spokespeople wonder how they can communicate their message confidently and clearly with limited editing by the media. There are a few takeaways from this press conference that anyone can use to effectively engage with the press.
After any interview, spokespeople should feel confident they were able to articulate their perspectives and messages while leaving little room for misinterpretation. Prepare three or four statements that you know you want to say to the reporter and their audience. That way, you’ll not only increase your chances of getting quoted in the first place, but also doing everything you can to ensure those quotes accurately convey your point of view.
In theory, James Harden’s key messages were: “I want to win at the highest level” and “My only focus now is to help build a winning culture here, not anywhere else.” Those did not come across.
At times, interviewers will ask tough questions about potential controversies and sensitive topics. Other times, you might interpret a reporter’s question as negative because it’s based on an incorrect assumption. Don’t focus on the negatives here: embrace the opportunity to focus on your key messages and connect with the audience.
For example, James Harden is aware he has a reputation as an “unhappy diva” among NBA reporters and fans, regardless how unfair or inaccurate it may be. At Harden’s first Clippers press conference, it was all but guaranteed that the media would ask about his thoughts on his former team.
While it’s fine to acknowledge his personal frustrations (already on public display for the past few months), Harden should have quickly pivoted to what he’s looking forward to accomplishing with his new team. Don’t linger on the negatives, and always look for chances to insert your key messages.
Interviews can live on the Internet forever. Quotes are published and republished by other websites – and then the social media meme posts start to snowball. Recognize the impact of what you say on the record because you’re ALWAYS on the record (unless you explicitly ask otherwise, and the reporter verbally agrees).
Like James Harden, you most likely won’t see your quote before publication, so be sure you say your messages exactly how you’d want to see it published.