Love ‘Em, Love to Leave ‘Em

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Athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Sponsors’ options to drop them do too.

When tennis star Maria Sharapova was caught doping, sponsors rushed for the exits.

While this article focuses on athletes, its lessons apply to all celebrities.

Bottom line: You must protect your brand. If “the face” of your company does something that doesn’t align with your brand’s values and you don’t speak out, it looks like you condone the behavior. Guilt by association.

How do you know which path is right for you?

There’s no definitive playbook or set of rules. Each situation is unique. But as a rule of thumb, the more conservative option will protect you the most.

Quick Drop
This lets the sponsor distance itself from a hot potato. It’s a swift kick to the curb:

  • Withdraw support verbally: After Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse, Verizon’s CEO posted on LinkedIn about the broad issue of domestic violence, rather than focus on Peterson or the NFL. This strategically shifted the dynamics and fostered a conversation about social change. It also provided a platform to promote Verizon’s own good works on this issue with HopeLine.
  • Pull merchandise and ad campaigns: After TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in a violent fight with his fiancee, both Modell’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods removed his jerseys from their stores.
  • End future plans, but keep current merchandise: Two days after Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was indicted for running a dogfighting ring, Nike announced it wouldn’t release the latest line of Vick shoes. However, Nike didn’t pull other Vick merchandise from shelves.

Stand By Your Man
Nike didn’t drop golfer Tiger Woods after his sex scandal, but gave him a penalty. This caused sponsors to reevaluate how far they’ll go to stick with their celebrities.1

Wait and See (a.k.a. Long Road to Eventually Dropping)
Road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong and Nike had a very long relationship, and like some romances it was hard to end. Finally Nike threw in the towel, “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.”

Rebrand
This one is sadly ironic. Nintendo had a video game called Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! After the boxer’s ex-wife came out with allegations of physical abuse, Nintendo simply renamed it Punch-Out!

No Such Thing As Bad Press
This is one of the more interesting (and less common) options. Despite OJ Simpson’s scandals, Hertz’s ad agency saw a silver lining stating, “Ultimately its success in raising the awareness of the company in an image-oriented business made it a plus…I still think it was one of the more perfect matches in the advertising, even if it ended so, so very badly.”

Still don’t know which road to take? Seek advice from someone who isn’t financially or emotionally invested in the decision. When you’re too involved, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. This clouds your judgment. You need someone who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Then, trust your gut.

——

“Because Reputation Is Your Most Valuable Asset”

Gillott Communications is a Strategic PR firm. We’re Fixers. Crisis & Reputation Management. Litigation. Media Relations. Crisis Prep. More than half a century of expertise working with clients to resolve issues both in and outside the media’s glare — in their professional and personal lives.

You can reach Roger Gillott and Eden Gillott Bowe directly at 310-396-8696.

If you don’t already subscribe, please sign up for our blog, Insights on High-Stakes PR.

For a deeper glimpse into our world, see our book on Amazon, “A Lawyer’s Guide to Crisis PR: Protecting Your Clients In & From the Media.”

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

1. In an article in the Huffington Post, reputation management expert (and my business partner) Roger Gillott went into detail about how poorly the entire Woods campaign was handled during the scandal.

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