The Butterfly Effect in the Digital Age


The butterfly effect. Yes, it’s a movie starring Ashton Kutcher but what I’m really talking about is how a single action, no matter how small, can have larger, more drastic (even detrimental) effects on a bigger event. One commonly used example: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, dramatically altering the course of a tornado in Texas.

Today, a number of small events have generated larger-than-expected outcomes, primarily because of the Internet. The Internet is the ultimate catalyst for this phenomenon, which we’ve now seen play out in the media over and over again. Events that may have flown under the radar in the past are now center stage.

Why has this changed? Platforms like blogs and social media give people a stage to speak their voice and bring national attention to small, localized occurrences. What was once a single, forgettable event can now blow up in your face or become an instant hit overnight. Take these, for instance:

Alaska Airlines’ ‘No Note to Fly’ Fiasco

Alaska Airlines recently booted a woman off a plane traveling from Hawaii to California because she had cancer and appeared ill, but didn’t have a note from her doctor allowing her to fly. Seriously? In their defense, they were following a (probably flawed) protocol and probably didn’t realize how this small event would blow up and get national attention. But it did, and the brand paid the price for what happened on one of its many flights on a global scale. Alaska Airlines was quick to issue an apology and offer a full refund, but the damage was done. The woman missed a chemotherapy appointment and the airline’s reputation was tarnished.

In this case, the butterfly effect triggered a negative outcome, but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

The Blue Dress Incident, and it’s not Lewinsky’s

You may remember the hullabaloo last month over the questionable color of a dress. After the image hit Tumblr, the debate over the dress’ real color exploded all over the Internet. It was covered by numerous leading news sites, and even celebrities joined the online debate. Is it black and blue, or white and gold? Seriously, who cares? Apparently, everyone and their mothers.

This is a perfect example of how one small thing – in this case, an oversaturated photograph of a striped dress – can get national attention. Not your usual example of the butterfly effect, but nonetheless an example of a small event exploding into absurd proportions and becoming a bigger issue than expected.

Good or bad – we see the butterfly effect phenomenon play out in the media on a daily basis. One thing is certain though, hope that your brand doesn’t find itself in a situation like that of Alaska Airlines.

The NFL: A Runaway Train

Wreck imminent. (BigStock)
Wreck imminent. (BigStock)

I don’t personally know NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Every opinion I have about him as a person and the leader of the NFL is gleaned from third-party sources. But I’ll say this – based on everything I’ve read and heard, he’s one of four things: unfathomably stubborn, exceedingly arrogant, amazingly delusional, deeply incompetent … or all of the above.

Now that the NFL season is in the rear view mirror, you don’t need to be a practitioner of hyperbole to call it one of the most exhausting and trying seasons in decades. Back in September, I wrote about how the months leading up to the 2014 season were a PR disaster for the league. Well, if you’re an NFL fan, this season was the campaign that really tested how much you were willing to tolerate to remain a devout follower of the sport. This season ran the gamut of depressing incidents: horrific domestic abuse cases (both against women and children); supposed cover-ups (or incompetence) by the league office in response to those cases; allegations of cheating against the eventual Super Bowl champions; and the disclosure of more grisly details around the toll the game has taken on ex-players. And at every turn, Goodell appeared to fumble every opportunity he had to address these incidents and mitigate their effects. It reached the point where the average person on the street probably thought they could do Goodell’s job better than him. I know I did.

And yet, the juggernaut that is the NFL rolled on, remaining as popular and lucrative as ever. Heck, this year’s Super Bowl was the most watched broadcast of any kind in U.S. TV history. It’s almost as if this past season was a science experiment to test how many public relations blunders a business could withstand before it buckled. The results for the NFL: they’re gonna need a lot more blunders.

Those blunders will come, as Goodell undoubtedly has some PR mishaps in front of him: while he’s delivering those ever-valuable profits to his bosses – the owners of the 32 franchises – he has a knack for making uninformed, knee-jerk decisions that cause him far more trouble further down the road and alienate the league’s fans and players. But here’s the thing: due to its popularity and ability to pretty much print money, the NFL is akin to a runaway train – it doesn’t need a driver, and it’s going to steamroll over any trouble it encounters on the tracks. It’s important to remember, though, that runaway trains don’t run forever. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said that the NFL “is 10 years away from an implosion.” Parents are increasingly forbidding their kids from playing football, thereby drying up the talent pool – President Obama is one of those parents. And the issue of the far-reaching effects concussions are having on ex-players is only going to grow as the years go by.

So what can the NFL do to avoid its potential demise, or at the very least, improve its image and keep the league alive and kicking? Let’s face it: the NFL faces a communications challenge so daunting that even the most skilled marketers on Earth couldn’t completely right the ship. But as with any organization faced with image issues, the league should take it one piece at a time. My advice to the NFL? Be more transparent, honest, and frankly, ethical in your day-to-day operations. Admit that you’ve had significant challenges managing player safety, appropriately addressing cases of domestic violence, and administering consistent disciplinary punishments. These issues deserve more than half-hearted lip service. At this point, Goodell’s reputation is so tainted that ANY attempt to show remorse and a desire to get things right will be a breath of fresh air.

At the end of the day, if you’re Roger Goodell right now, you’re probably sitting in your plush office in New York City and feeling a sense of invincibility: “If my league can survive this season, it can survive ANYTHING.” And for now, that’s true. It was the season from hell, but not really. But at some point, that runaway train will need to be corralled, and if Goodell has taught us anything, it’s that right now he’s not the guy equipped to apply the brakes.

LeBron: A Lesson in Reshaping Perception

What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison
What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison

Let us take you back to early 2003.

LeBron James, the most hyped high school basketball player of all time and the supposed next Michael Jordan – which is one of the most misused pieces of acclaim for any basketball player who shows any flash of brilliance – was in his senior year and the undisputed #1 pick in that year’s talent-rich NBA draft. True to the ideal narrative, LeBron, raised in Akron, Ohio, was taken with the #1 pick by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. In his seven years with the Cavaliers, LeBron made all the right moves (short of winning a championship). To the NBA, its fans and the media, LeBron was an uber-talented player who had deftly and maturely handled an enormous amount of pressure since entering the league. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

And then, in 2010, came “The Decision.”

The main storyline of the 2009-2010 NBA season wasn’t the actual games, but LeBron’s impending free agency. The bottom line was that there were only a few teams that had the financial flexibility to sign LeBron to a full-term, high-paying contract, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat. On the evening of July 8, 2010, LeBron was the star of a bloated, self-indulgent television special on ESPN that was held solely for LeBron to announce which team he had chosen. The now-iconic line uttered by LeBron at the climax of the show: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Miami it was.

The backlash was immediate.

Back in Cleveland, LeBron’s former fans burned his jerseys in the street, and the owner of the Cavaliers wrote a scathing screed against LeBron (that might’ve held some weight if it hadn’t been written in Comic Sans font). Everyone who wasn’t a Heat fan was sour on the fact that he was teaming up with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a “super team.” The result was that LeBron was public enemy number one to everyone but Miami fans, and the crassness of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. Public perception: overwhelmingly negative.

As LeBron won two championships in Miami, the majority of the public began to somewhat warm back up to him: chalk it up to the adage that time heals all, or most, wounds. Cleveland also positioned itself perfectly to potentially sign LeBron to a maximum contract and bring him home in the 2014 offseason, when LeBron was once again (and maybe for the last time) a free agent, and this became more of a reality when LeBron’s Heat team got thoroughly outplayed in the 2014 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. The best player on the planet surveyed his surroundings, perhaps realizing that his current super team wasn’t so super, and disappeared for a few weeks to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life.

Then came the bombshell.

On July 11, 2014, LeBron revealed in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated that he had decided to return to the Cavaliers. His announcement was in stark contrast to The Decision: his essay was genuine, heartfelt, and devoid of fanfare. Here was a player who wanted to return to his roots and deliver his hometown team something they’d never had: a championship. THIS decision – probably owing largely to how it was communicated – was roundly applauded by fans and the media. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

In life, and especially in the sports world, people tend to get second chances. You need to look no further than the NFL’s Michael Vick for a prime example. But LeBron’s case was unique in that he never really did anything wrong – at least, nothing that brought real harm to anyone or justified any legal action against him – but he toyed with a few of the emotions that are most sacred to sports fans: loyalty (leaving Cleveland in such a cold manner) and humility (doing so during a national TV show). In returning to Cleveland, however, LeBron orchestrated one of the most profound and immediate reputation makeovers in the recent public consciousness. He let us know that he had unfinished business in Cleveland and that delivering a title would be one of his greatest accomplishments, and we knew he had the wisdom afforded by experience to mean what he said. But undoubtedly most importantly for LeBron, he was making a decision that was completely true to himself – and at that point, public perception be damned.