On 14th February - Valentines’s Day - it was announced that Oscar Pistorius was arrested and charged with the shooting and murder of his girlfriend. On the same day, one of the ads from Nike’s sponsorship campaign was conspicuously pulled. The ad in question: Oscar Pistorius, clad in lycra, exploding into a sprint, with the tagline ‘I am the bullet in the chamber’ emblazoned upon it.
There’s nothing especially new about brands having to cut ties with contentious ambassadors whom they sponsor in good faith. Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, Wayne Rooney, Tiger Woods, OJ Simpson, Mike Tyson and myriad others will testify to that.
The concept of sponsoring human beings is, by its very nature, a capricious business and something that brands will enter into knowing there is an element of risk involved. The question is: is the risk worth it? Is the inevitable damage to a brand’s reputation, through association, small enough to justify continued mega money commercial deals?
The answer to this is, of course, subjective. It would be foolish to presume that the backlash Nike will face as a result of Pistorius’s alleged actions will be equal to that which Coca Cola might face from Rooney’s infidelities. Like most things in PR, reputation is very difficult to measure, despite being critical to a brand’s success.
It’s worth noting that crises such as this are dealt with in a profoundly different way than they were previously. The internet means that there’s no hiding place. Within hours of the story breaking, Google returned thousands of results highlighting Pistorius’s affiliation with Nike, mostly with the added context of the unfortunate aforementioned ad. There’ll be no sweeping under a rug here. No containment. Generally speaking, in 2013 it’s much harder to perform a PR cover-up operation, not to mention the ethical implications of doing so.
However, Nike has done nothing wrong. In terms of its actions, it is merely a victim of circumstance. Perhaps poor character judgement is the worst it can be accused of - and who hasn’t been guilty of that at one time or another? But this doesn’t mean that everything will be alright. A water-tight PR and communications strategy is needed to ensure Nike come out the other side unscathed. After all, it is just a ‘victim’, right? Regardless of whether you agree or not, Nike perpetuating this idea is crucial to sustaining its reputation.
This now becomes a story about empathy. The general public and, more pertinently, Nike’s stakeholders will likely share a common opinion on Pistorius - one of shock, disappointment and dismay. To engage and relate with its public, Nike must fully emulate these emotions and portray them in a way which doesn’t appear contrived or exploitive, sensitive to such a poignant human issue. It needs to explain that ultimately, it is as shocked, disappointed and dismayed as its public. This puts Nike on an even footing with its stakeholders, as it encourages and facilitates unity through understanding its customers’ emotions and behaviour. Basic engagement theory.
A case in point is how Nike responded to fierce doping allegations against disgraced global cycling phenomenon Lance Armstrong. In a statement Nike said:
"Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.”
The statement is laced with empathetic language, positioning Nike as the victim of the scandal. It resonates with, and panders to, the millions of disillusioned fans that had supported Armstrong - and through association, Nike - and unites brand and public in a common cause. Nike is associating itself with Livestrong rather than Armstrong, putting its values more in line with the people who suffered as a consequence of his actions.
It is a very sensitive subject when dealing with something as serious as the loss of life, but it’s long been the mantra of the PR profession that every crisis presents an opportunity. The circumstances are wholly undesirable but the fact remains, Nike does have an opportunity. Not to capitalise on such horrific events, but to protect itself in the aftermath by being smart and doing smart PR and communications. Currently the brand have refused to comment - don’t expect that stance to last long.
Toby Margetts is engagement executive at creative digital agency Beyond