Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans: A Profile in Social Media Suicide

by Ben Cook on July 9, 2010

Don't throw social media tantrums

For the last few years we’ve been beaten over the head with the idea that your company should be involved in social media. And to a large extend I agree.

But you need to be careful WHO is involved in social media for your company. If for example, your chairman is a hot headed moron who’s likely to post the literary equivalent to a temper tantrum for all the world to see, he might not be the best candidate.

Thankfully, Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans and majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers has provided a great case study for you and your company’s CEO on what NOT to do.

Background

For the non-sports fans in my audience, allow me to set the stage for Mr. Gilbert’s meltdown. LeBron James, one of the two best players in the game, and almost certainly a future Hall of Famer was deciding where he wanted to play basketball for the next several years. James had played for the last 7 years for Gilbert’s Cavaliers and as an Ohio native, was the home-town hero.

The Mistake

Unfortunately for Cleveland, LeBron decided to join his friends in playing for the Miami Heat. In response, Dan Gilbert posted a letter (as seen below) to Cav fans on the team’s website.

click for full view

Agree or disagree with LeBron’s decision, love him or hate him, you can’t tell me Gilbert’s letter improves the image of the Cavs or Quicken Loans.

While I can only imagine the frustration Cleveland fans must be feeling right now, Gilbert’s letter lectures calls LeBron selfish, narcissistic, heartless and a traitor. All of that for choosing to go “work” with his friends in what he deems a better environment.

By using such strong language Giblert doesn’t help improve his company’s image (which should be the goal of all social media efforts), but rather makes it seem like they’re led by a unstable hot head who lashes out when things don’t go his way. Not to mention the fact that we’re still talking about a GAME. James didn’t betray national secrets or abuse kids or kill puppies on his way to the podium last night. He simply didn’t make the decision Gilbert wanted.

The Problem

Given Gilbert’s reaction to bad news, it’s no surprise there were no Quicken or Cavalier employees around that were willing to tell Gilbert the letter was a bad idea. While it’s great for CEO’s to be excited and engaged in social media, there HAS to be someone that can prevent debacles like this before they start.

Somewhere along the line last night, Gilbert needed an employee, whether someone from PR, Legal, a member of the social media team or hell, even the IT grunt (come on dude, at least change it from comic sans!) who posted the letter, to step up to the plate and challenge the idea. “Excuse me sir, but is this REALLY the face we want to show to the world right now? Can we maybe tone down some aspects of the letter and make it seem a little bit more positive in nature?”

Sure that version of the letter might not have made many Cav fans feel better, but it also wouldn’t have given the rest of the world the mental image of the chairman of Quicken Loans thrashing around on the floor kicking and screaming because he didn’t get the toy he wanted.

While the twitter rep for Quicken might think the letter show’s Gilbert’s a “passionate guy” I’m certainly not the only one who was repulsed by it.

And those are just some of the fan reactions! I don’t know about you, but my goal for social media is NOT to have people questioning the sobriety of my company’s chairman.

So yes, many companies DO need to be involved in social media. However, you also need to have systems set in place to make sure the engagement is positive, and helps improve your company’s image, rather than damaging the brand. If your CEO wants to blog, fantastic! But you’d better have the balls to intervene before he or she throws gasoline on a fire. If you can’t do that, or your CEO’s ego won’t allow that, you’d probably be better off if they avoided social media like the plague.

P.S. Yes that’s me throwing some sort of tantrum when I was younger. I’ve grown up since then, something it appears Dan Gilbert hasn’t managed to accomplish.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam Baird July 9, 2010 at 10:15 am

This is terrible in terms of relating the general public. Its worse in a business sense for the Cavs. LeBron would be a Cav right now if he could have convinced ANY of the other high profile free agents to come to Cleveland with him. He couldn’t because Cleveland is a dumb compared to most places.

Mr. Gilbert already has that obstacle to deal with in terms of getting high profile players to come play for him. Now, he acts like this when he has a dispute with a player? Good luck getting players to come play for an owner who’s going to lay them out publicly when they make business decision he doesn’t like.

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steveplunkett July 9, 2010 at 10:26 am

While terrible from a CEO/PR standpoint.. i’m pretty sure the people of Cleveland mirror his sentiment.. We as professionals know this is the wrong thing to do.

However I would be surprised if this is not well received by Cavs fans..

Maybe it’s a problem with society that we place so much importance on professional sports figures, but realistically without this type of energy from the Cavs management.. the economic impact of LeBron leaving Cleveland could be and still may be devastating.

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Ben Cook July 9, 2010 at 10:37 am

Steve, I’m sure this will be well received by Cav fans, but it isn’t going to put more fans in the seats if the team sucks. And it’s going to hurt his image with players (as several people have mentioned) so he’ll end up over-paying for mediocre players which is a recipe for disaster.

From a larger perspective, he’s being widely mocked for the response (especially the use of Comic Sans) and that isn’t good for Quicken Loans. The fact that their social media team not only stands behind the letter but is actively promoting it baffles me.

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Arnie | Vertical Measures July 9, 2010 at 10:30 am

I totally agree with Adam… Gilbert just dug himself a bigger hole. But I love the letter. I love seeing him pour his guts out. And I love that it gave us all something to talk about this morning ๐Ÿ™‚

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Nick Lawhead July 9, 2010 at 10:30 am

I was still laughing at Gilbert’s response before even thinking about Quicken Loans and their involvement. Very insightful read.

Furthermore, Gilbert is going to have a helluva time getting big names in the future – they know he might freak out at any time!

I appreciate the insight – keep it up!

@nlawhead

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Ben Cook July 9, 2010 at 10:38 am

You’re absolutely right Nick. It would have been bad enough if it were just a sports figure saying something stupid. But you can’t say or do these kinds of idiotic things when you’re the chairman of a large corporation. I’m betting he’ll get fined by the NBA and I can’t wait to see what if any fall-out he faces within his own company. I know I for one, won’t consider Quicken for a loan anymore.

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Anita Campbell July 9, 2010 at 11:29 am

Ben, I have a dramatically different point of view on this. The title of this article should have been “How to Do a Tiger Woods and Commit PR Suicide by Being an Egotistical Spoiled Jerk with no Regard for Fans or Those Who Love You.” And the emphasis should have been on LeBron’s class-less behavior, not Dan Gilbert’s.

While I would never behave like Dan Gilbert, and don’t condone letting his hurt show in public and fling insults, it doesn’t change the fact that LeBron James acted like a childish, spoiled egotistical jerk, either. He thumbed his nose at his fans, by refusing to tell his current owner that he was leaving in a private meeting. He humiliates the entire city of Cleveland by making some big announcement on TV (imagine if you announced to the world that you were getting a divorce or going to a new employer, without telling your spouse or current employer privately first?). He strung out his decision all because he was some publicity hound, until many other players signed preventing Cleveland from getting some of the best to replace him, leaving his team in a terrible bind. And then LeBron immediately jumps on a plane to go party in Miami, as if to say to the world “I can’t wait to get out of Cleveland.” This town/area revered him and overlooked so many strange things in Lebron’s personal life — things that never were publicized, but which people knew about and were willing to overlook as long as he had the love of his fans. Shame on him to treat his fans and his former employer that way.

You can talk all you want about Dan Gilbert, but know this: there’s one line in Gilbert’s letter that his fans (no longer LeBron’s fans) desperately want to hear and it’s this line:

“I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only: DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue….”

You see, Dan Gilbert knows his customers (CAVs fans) far better than LeBron ever did.

So give criticism where it’s really due: an egotistical sports figure who thinks only of himself and is not the self-less loyal person his carefully-crafted PR persona has led people to think he is. He showed his true colors over the past weeks. Just like Tiger Woods, now we know him for exactly what he is.

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Ben Cook July 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

Anita, while I agree that LeBron definitely didn’t handle the situation as he probably should have, that in no way excuses Gilbert’s response. In fact, if anything, Gilbert’s response makes people less sympathetic to the Cav’s plight. I’m left thinking “no wonder LeBron left, look at the jerk he was working for!”

I agree that the promise of renewing their energy and focus on winning a championship is a good thing to do. However, that could have been done without all the other crybaby crap that makes the team look pathetic.

And while I didn’t really want to get into defending LeBron all that much in this post, I would argue that he owed the Cavs absolutely nothing. As I said, I do think this was a rough way to treat the fans, but leaving a job to go work with your friends and complete a pact you made years ago is tough to argue with. There are certain people in the industry that I’d jump at the chance to work with, and I don’t see why James is held to a different standard.

The subject of fan entitlement is a whole other topic for probably a different blog ๐Ÿ™‚

In any case, I appreciate your comment and opposing view point. Keep em coming!

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steveplunkett July 9, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Ben,
Anita makes a lot of good points…

What If LeBron had stayed in Cleveland he would have been a hero, if he would have won a championship there, he would have surpassed Michael Jordan in terms of BBall hero worship and he would have gotten SO MUCH MORE MONEY IN ENDORSEMENTS..

but nope.. he is going for the ring.

Rebecca July 9, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Here’s a question: Do you see under Danโ€™s signature on the letter โ€“ or anywhere in the letter, for that matter – anything about his association with Quicken Loans? While Dan has interests in many, many business ventures, in this statement he was speaking as owner of the Cavs, to the fans of the Cavs.

Believe it or not, the entire world is not wrapped up in the social media perspective. The internet is exactly NOT a controlled propaganda instrument for the sole purpose of giving self-proclaimed marketing experts consulting gigs. It’s a powerful platform for free speech.

Not everything on the Internet is part of a pre-meditated campaign, nor should it be. While your ilk spout nebulous guidelines for a quickly morphing area of digital communication, deconstructing how people should and should not participate on the wide world web, real people will go on expressing themselves however they please. Just as you are on your own blog now.

I hope — for the proliferation of opinions and free speech everywhere — people do not listen to your short-sighted advice on how to stifle and package messages according to traditional PR notions and a restricted set of vague and hypocritical “best practices” for digital discourse. It’s funny to me how the same social media experts who extol the virtues of transparency and honesty are the first to tell you how to craft a calculated message.

While I may or may not agree with Danโ€™s statement, I WHOLEHEARTEDLY defend his right to publish whatever he wants to the Cavs and sports community. That’s the point of the medium: unfettered and honest communication.

Signed-
A Quicken Loans employee and champion of honest, transparent communication in all its forms

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Ben Cook July 9, 2010 at 5:24 pm

As the Cavs owner how does Gilbert attacking James make the product on the court better? In fact if his accusations that LeBron quit on his team were true, he shouldn’t have wanted him back and should have been happy he left Cleveland! Instead he comes across as a spoiled brat and I have a hard time figuring out why anyone would want to play for him.

Also, while you absolutely can say whatever you want via social media, you must also realize that those statements have repercussions just the same. Gilbert can say what he wants, but my point is that he only hurt his companies, brands by doing so.

Honesty is fine, but if the honest truth is that your chairman and founder is a spoiled brat who says stupid things when he gets upset, you’d be better off keeping that info to yourself.

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Rebecca July 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Naturally there are repercussions to honest communication.

And if you look closely, there are just as many people — like Alison below, for instance — who think the message was terrific. Your premise is that you should “control” messages from people associated with your brands as the best way to use social media effectively. My point is that social media is about empowering everyone’s voice. Let the communication flow, and let the chips fall where they may.

Perhaps some people – like you – will be turned off and never do business with Dan’s companies. And you are entitled to your opinion. But I ask you to do a search on twitter and look at ALL the comments, not just the ones that support your opinion. The same statement you find petulant is seen as passionate and refreshing by others, and winning just as many converts.

So really your view that this is “suicide” is quite off the mark. It’s a mixed bag, and the honesty lets people decide where they want to do business. Which is a good thing, and the natural and intended result of social media. Personally, I like knowing who I am doing business with, and don’t appreciate a team of PR experts putting a false face on the facts. I thought we were trying to grow beyond those days?

The rainbow of reactions is the nature of the beast – a testament to individuality encouraged and facilitated by social media. The point of the venue is to empower us all to speak our minds, not assign outdated, PR-ish, “broadcast”-style tactics to new media.

Pops July 9, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Rebecca, I think everyone here would “WHOLEHEARTEDLY defend his right to publish whatever he wants.” We might not all be Patrick Henry but I think freedom of speech is fairly well regarded in the social media sphere.

And I also support Dan’s right to demonstrate to the world that he’s classless, clueless and immature.

But the truth is you don’t need Ben or some other social media guru to tell you how to handle situations like this. Dear Abby has been giving this kind of advice for years: Write the angry letter and then throw it away. You can always right another when you’ve cooled off.

How much better would it have been if he’d told the fans what efforts he had made to keep James, what his plans were for the future of the team, wished Lebron good luck and then promised to do everything in his power to make sure the Cavs kicked the Heat’s ass the next time they meet?

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Rebecca July 9, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I hear what you are saying, Pops…my comment is not about the content, but about whether or not PR should control the social media communications of a person who may have a connection to their business.

My opinion is NO.

Brian Clark September 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Saying inappropriate things at a cocktail party can ruin your business and social life.

Yet saying the same things in social media channels is somehow not stupid, but noble? Get over your idealism.

Social media is society. Stupidity always has consequences.

Alison Groves July 9, 2010 at 3:49 pm

I guess I’m the only one who loved it. I’m so completely tired of hearing the party line and canned responses from upper management. It’s nice to see someone respond with any sort of passion, no matter how “idiotic” people make it out to be.

The real idiots are the Heat front office who now have to find like 8 guys to play ball for $1.5 million collectively. This whole thing was completely idiotic and egotistical, but I guess I’m one of the few who appreciates (perceived) candor. And comic sans.

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Ben Cook July 9, 2010 at 5:28 pm

To address your basketball point first, they just made a trade that will free up some money and the trio has said they’ll take less than the maximum deal to make the team better.

As to your point about it being nice to see an unfiltered opinion, I agree but there is a much less destructive way to do that. Passion and stupidity are not the same things. He could have easily said good luck coming in second cause we’re gonna win without you and seemed passionate while maintaining the high ground.

His response only served to make James seem like a more sympathetic figure because look at what kind of boss he had in Cleveland! The guy is as two-faced as they come and acts like he owned James or that James owed him something when in fact James is the only reason that franchise was worth anything in the first place!

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Alison Groves July 9, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Oh! And P.S., basketball is dumb.

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Rebecca July 12, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Correction: Dan Gilbert is not the CEO. Bill Emerson is the CEO of Quicken Loans. Dan Gilbert the chairman of the board. And as I have mentioned earlier, has interests in many, many businesses. He did not become successful by having PR handlers filter his decisions. He got to where he is today from following his gut, and some people admire that.

I don’t limp love, war and sports together, I lump them together. And it’s called poetic license.

Comic sans was trending because some people were bemused by what they saw as irony in the merging of circumstances. Once again a perfect demonstration of reactions to Dan’s letter being across the board — and that all people do not think the same, as you would assume.

And to answer your question, I think it’s great that the BP CEO spoke his mind in public. Again, demonstrating that if communications are freer and unfettered by traditional PR constraints, we can all make better buying decisions. And further proving my point that social media gives us more information, and that’s a good thing.

You can base your own buying decisions on what happens in the world of basketball – that is certainly your right! Personally, I prefer to base my buying decisions on the service I get from a company and the value the company provides to clients.

My original point was that your judgment of “social media suicide” reflects a true misunderstanding of the intention of social media. Not a single thing you’ve said since your original post convinces me otherwise.

When all is said and done, the public will vote with their dollar; I don’t mind telling you that business is better than ever.

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Ben Cook July 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Rebecca, excuse the typos, I was responding from my phone.

In any case, I like how your lumping together of basketball with serious issues is poetic license but if I dare mention BP’s CEO you jumped down my throat. Well played.

And you’re of course quite right. Gilbert is the Chairman which I’ve said countless times, not the CEO which I mistakenly said in the last comment. Congrats on not actually addressing the point.

However, its nice to see you have come out in support of the BP CEO’s idiotic remarks as well. It makes it much easier to see why you’re standing behind Gilbert’s. If we can agree their comments should be classified similarly I think we’ll finally have an end to this argument.

By the way, it was nice to see Stern fined Gilbert $100,000 for his remarks.

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Ben Cook July 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Rebecca, we’re not talking about just anyone, this is your founder and chairman.

Also your premise of letting anyone say whatever they want and let the chops fall where they may is ridiculous. What if Gilbert had sworn or used racially offensive language? Would you think that needed to be published just to avoid controlling the message? Of course not!

Just as it was a bad idea for the BP CEO to say he wanted his life back, the comments were a poor choice of words. If you kook at the national reaction today you’ll see the damage has been done. This isn’t being viewed as heart-warming or refreshingly honest. It’s being viewed as irresponsible, irrational and childish.

But of course, the reaction apparently means nothing to you so long as he was being honest.

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Rebecca July 10, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Wait, did you just compare basketball to the biggest oil spill disaster in history?! I think you need to put this back in to perspective.

Like I said, reactions were not universally negative to the content. Even your own commenters demonstrate this. In fact, it’s generated an enormous amount of buzz, not all of it bad. Comic Sans was trending on twitter, for heaven’s sake! I think when it comes to love, war, and sports, people are pretty forgiving of – and in fact, even expect – displays of passion. And it gives people like you something to talk about.

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Ben Cook July 11, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Rebecca, I think you need to read a bit more carefully. I compared your chairman’s “vitriolic remarks” (as one ESPN writer recently called them) to the public vocal blunders of BP’s CEO. By the way, as horrible as this is it still doesn’t qualify as the biggest oil spill believe it or not.

Also, do you think Comic Sans was trending on Twitter for a good reason? Do you think people were saying “DUDE! I totally love the Cavs and Quicken Loans because their CEO used Comic Sans!”? Of course they weren’t! They were saying “holy crap I can’t believe that idiot used Comic Sans” or “How dumb do you have to be to publish a rant using Comic Sans” or “I couldn’t even read the letter because it was in Comic Sans”

As if misreading my previous comment and saying I compared basketball to the oil spill, you then limp sports in with love and war? Give me a break! We absolutely expect displays of passion. However, we don’t expect a CEO to display the type of passion we’d expect from a spoiled 7 year old.

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