Corporate writing is notoriously terrible. This isn’t because the people who work for corporations are terrible writers. It’s because the writing that takes place inside big institutions, in the face of a crisis, isn’t written by individuals. It’s written by committees, composed of people with multiple agendas.
The CFO worries about the bottom line. The CEO worries about what the board thinks. The outside legal counsel tries to minimize any potential legal exposure, and the crisis communication team, hired at great expense, wants to make it clear that the CFO, the CEO, the Board and the outside legal counsel don’t know what they are talking about.
Good things rarely come from a mashup like that, which is why I was so taken by the following bit of corporate writing that popped up recently.
The occasion was the disappearance of the top-ranked Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, just after she accused a senior Chinese goverment official of sexual assault. The Women’s Tennis Association—the group that governs elite women’s tennis—had just entered into a ten-year deal with the Chinese government, worth many hundreds of millions of dollars and featuring nine tournaments a year, culminating in a season-ending event in Shenzhen. So the WTA was in a bind. What should they do? They decided to suspend all future tournaments in China and Hong Kong until Shuai’s allegation was properly investigated.
The WTA’s chief, Steve Simon, justified the group’s decision with this beautiful bit of explanation:
Oh my. Do me a favor? Read that paragraph a second time: simple, clear, courageous.
Now let’s compare what just happened in the world of women’s tennis with what happened just over two years ago in the National Basketball Association.
In October of 2019, Daryl Morey, then the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” His tweet was a reference to the unrest then engulfing Hong Kong, during which millions of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest anti-Democratic measures being taken by the mainland Chinese government.
Like the WTA, the NBA has very lucrative business relationships with the Chinese government. Basketball is one of the biggest sports in China. And Morey’s tweet set off a firestorm. The Chinese government announced it would halt cooperation with the Rockets, and the media company with exclusive rights to NBA content in China temporarily suspended all broadcasts of Rockets games. Morey was denounced by the owner of his own team. He was forced to apologize. He had to delete his tweet. He feared he would never work again in professional basketball.
The NBA was in the same situation that the WTA was in last month. Stand up for principle? Or appease its business partners?
OK. Let’s read this one a second time as well. First, the opening line: Morey’s comments were “regrettable” because they “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” Presumably, this was an attempt to make the Chinese feel better: a half-apology. One of our people upset some of your people.
Then comes Sentence #2: “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.” As the sports announcers say, let’s break this down:
1. Morey was speaking for himself, not us. OK.
2. And the NBA believes that it is a good thing when people “share their views on matters important to them.”
But wait. Didn’t they just call Morey’s tweet “regrettable” because it offended some people? Is the NBA saying that you should only share your views on matters important to you if those views have the unanimous approval of those around you? I thought the whole point of free speech was that it was most important in those instances where it does offend others. The founding fathers did not enact the First Amendment in order to protect the freedom of Americans to post cute pictures of their cats on Instagram.
Sentence #1 zigs one way. Sentence #2 goes the other way before, awkwardly, zagging back.
Which brings us to Sentence #3. We have “great respect” for the “history and culture” of China. Wait, who said anything about history and culture? Morey’s tweet was a reference to an act of ongoing, anti-Democratic repression in Hong Kong. Was the NBA implying that ongoing anti-Democratic acts of repression are somehow part of the “history and culture” of China? Are they saying that they have “great respect” for all of Communist China’s historical acts of barbarism? The mass murders of the Cultural Revolution? The Tiananmen Square massacre? Or perhaps the concentration camps where China is currently holding more than a million Uyghurs? Sports, the sentence concludes, in yet another rhetorical contortion, should be used “as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.” Meaning, I guess, that playing basketball ought to be a way to get us all to forget acts of nastiness… Except when I read that bit about “bringing people together,” all I could think was that maybe this was a sly reference to the mass arrests then taking place on the streets of Hong Kong. Or maybe not. The point is you could give that paragraph to a crack team of Jesuit scholars for a bit of high-level exegesis and you’d be no more the wiser.
A few days later Adam Silver relocated his conscience, from the closet where it had been hidden by his legal team, and issued a followup statement to reporters in Tokyo:
That’s much better. But Silver’s second attempt still had none of the simplicity and moral clarity of the WTA’s response. Corporate writing, as I’ve said, is notoriously terrible.
So here’s my advice to any future CEO caught in a difficult spot. Put your values first. Remember that your obligation is to your own community. Don’t embarrass yourself in public, in defense of whatever random dictatorship you’ve found yourself in bed with. When it comes to responding, tell the lawyers and the crisis-managers to stay home, so you have a chance to say what you mean. And if you don’t want to? Use Steve Simon’s response as your template. Here you go. Feel free to cut and paste as necessary:
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of ______ and sweep allegations of _______ under the rug, then the basis on which the _____ was founded — [insert moral values here] — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to _____ and its ______.”
[Header Photo: Matthew Stockman / Staff via Getty Images]