Last week, ESPN released a pre-recorded video featuring NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant with host Cari Champion discussing a range of topics from the NBA All-Star Game to racism in America. When Champion brought up President Trump in the context of the nation's political divide, James was quick to share his candid thoughts.
"The number one job in America...is someone who doesn't understand the people, and really don't give a f--- about the people," James said of Trump in the video. He went on to say, "While we cannot change what comes out of that man's mouth, we can continue to alert the people that watch us, that listen to us...this is not the way."
On Thursday, Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on a scripted, ad hominem rant against James, leading off by announcing a "jumb dock [sic] alert." She then introduced a clip of the ESPN interview by saying, "Here's [James'] barely intelligible, not to mention ungrammatical, take on President Trump on a new ESPN podcast."
After playing the clip, Ingraham said, "Must they run their mouths like that? Unfortunately, a lot of kids and some adults take these ignorant comments seriously." She ended the segment by addressing James and Durant directly: "You're great players, but no one voted for you. Millions elected Trump to be their coach. So keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, 'shut up and dribble.'"
Responding to a personal attack.
During his NBA All-Star media availability on Saturday, James was asked about Ingraham's comments. "First of all, I had no idea who she is," he told reporters. "She won in that case, because now I know who she is."
With those words, James framed Ingraham's personal attack on him as an attention-seeking ratings stunt. Ingraham later supported that notion by attempting to invite James onto her show via Twitter. So far, James has ignored that invitation.
James went on to thank Ingraham, although not referring to her by name, saying, "I get to sit up here and talk about social injustice, equality and why a woman on a certain network decided to tell me to shut up and dribble." With that response, the four-time NBA MVP stayed composed and on message, brushing off Ingraham's rant and pivoting back to the issues he cares about.
Social media, review sites and other online publishing platforms make it easier than ever for internet users to publicly criticize brands and business leaders. Those attacks can get very personal, and your response (or decision not to respond) can tilt an audience's sentiment in either direction.
When brands and business leaders choose to respond to personal insults, reactions out of anger or other emotions rarely end well. It's important to show your best face, be cool and make it crystal clear you won't be baited by an online troll or a shock jock on cable.
In some cases, not responding at all can send a powerful message. It tells the critic and the public that the comments weren't worthy of a response. This is often appropriate when the comments include profanity or when the commentary is so over-the-top that a response could give it undue credibility.
On the other hand, responses are sometimes warranted if the criticism has merit or, as in James' case, if responding allows you to bring positive awareness to your brand, mission or point of view. James responded like the champion he is, and when business leaders take the tactful approach he did, they too can transform personal attacks into constructive dialogue.