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It is an issue which has divided a sport and a country.
And now the very public showdown between President Donald Trump and athletes who refuse to stand during the national anthem, as a protest on social injustice, has begun to embroil brands.
Nike, which currently has the rights to make all NFL uniforms, issued a statement in support of protesting players yesterday.
It said: “Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.”
Nike NFL statement: “Nike supports athletes & their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.”— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 25, 2017
It’s a message which puts the sportswear manufacturer in direct opposition to the President, who, through his preferred communication tool Twitter, has called for team owners to fire players who kneel and for fans to boycott games ‘until players stop disrespecting our country’.
Nike is not alone. Under Armour, another sportswear brand, endorses Stephen Curry, a basketball star who recently told reporters he did not want to go to the White House for political reasons. The company said it 'stands for the flag and by our athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America’.
.@UnderArmour stands for the flag and by our Athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America.
— Under Armour News (@UAnews) September 23, 2017
Meanwhile Ford, an NFL sponsor, said after this weekend’s protests ‘we respect individuals’ right to express their views even if they are not ones we share’.
But it is not just across the Atlantic where companies are becoming involved in political issues.
When the ‘Stop Funding Hate’ campaign, which believes certain sections of the media demonise foreigners and minorities, targeted companies advertising in The Sun, Daily Mail and the Express, Lego ended its association with the Mail. John Lewis, however, took a different approach. A spokesperson said that ‘we fully appreciate the strength of feeling on the issue’, but added that withdrawing advertising ‘would be inconsistent with our democratic principles which include freedom of speech and remaining apolitical’.
While most brands are likely to want to continue to remain apolitical, it seems increasingly likely in the new world order they may be dragged into much wider political and social conversations or feel compelled to stand up for their values.
So what do companies need to do when they find themselves in this situation?
It’s vital that the brand can communicate its position with clarity and consistency. This includes being able to communicate the reasons behind taking that position and how it sits with the organisation’s values.
As with any crisis media management situation, if your brand is in the political spotlight you also need to act quickly, otherwise speculation and even fake news may set the agenda.
Prepare for backlash
We live in politically divided times and it is inevitable that when a brand makes a political statement there will be a backlash from those who have different opinions.
And social media gives them the perfect platform to quickly air those views.
Almost as soon as the Nike statement was picked up by media outlets and shared on Twitter, tweets began to circulate from people threatening to boycott the company.
@Nike I have to boycott Nike. You issued a statement support the disrespectful actions of the NFL!— Jay Oaks 🌎 (@JayOaks) September 26, 2017
BOYCOTT Nike!!!! https://t.co/eB2U5l2txk— Michele (@MMaggio0810) September 26, 2017
Don’t get involved in messy debates
You may not like the backlash but it is important you do not get involved in messy public debates on social media.
Protracted back-and-forth online arguments never look good for brands, regardless of whether the subject is political, and organisations should always avoid replying more than twice.
While the criticism may by painful, a strong, consistent stance is also likely to inspire loyalty among other customers.
Know your customers
New Balance found itself in full crisis mode last year when a company spokesperson was quoted as saying that under Trump ‘we feel things are going to move in the right direction’.
The subsequent reaction from customers, who shared photos and videos of the company’s trainers in bins and being set on fire, suggests it had not considered that such a pro-Trump statement might trigger a furious response.
The company also had to act quickly to distance itself from hate groups who had seized upon the comments.
This may sound obvious, but spokespeople are likely to face questions about the brand’s position when they are being interviewed about something completely unrelated.
And they could equally face questions about the issue months down the line. Remember the athletes’ protest in America had been simmering for some time but was suddenly reignited last weekend after the President Trump raised the issue.
It seems likely that we will increasingly see companies take political stances and make political comments.
And there is much that brands can learn from watching and monitoring how other companies do it and how effective their strategies are.
If you look at the New Balance example again, the comment had been made about trade policy, but gained traction as an apparent endorsement of the new President as a whole – a key lesson for spokespeople in how they must ensure their quotes cannot be misconstrued.
But, there is also much to be learnt from the way it quickly responded to the ensuing fallout and how it worked to clarify its position.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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