Just Don’t Do It — Defending Your Brand in a Crisis

Amid recent doping scandals and controversy, Nike has recently decided to drop US cyclist Lance Armstrong from its list of celebrity athlete endorsements. Nike stood behind Armstrong over years of allegations surrounding his use of performance enhancing drugs, but after the US Anti-Doping Agency released detailed reports of the charges against him, it seems brands like Nike had no choice but to let Armstrong go.

Lance ArmstrongRegardless of your views on Armstrong as a champion or cheater, one thing is certain: Nike — the most valuable sports brand in the world — had to make a choice on whether to stick with the founder of the Livestrong foundation or fire the now-banned cyclist. Nike’s statement: 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 does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.” Not only did Nike choose to release his sponsorship but Armstrong himself chose to step down as chairman of the foundation which Nike has partnered with since its inception in 1997. Though Nike will not end its partnership with the cancer charity, it has severed its ties with Armstrong, a former image of inspiration and hope for athletes and those battling cancer alike.

So what does this mean for brands and more importantly, for PR and crisis communications?

Nike has been known to stick by most of its endorsees; for instance, it did not give the boot to either Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant after their personal scandals. What makes this case different? Armstrong’s transgressions were on the playing field – something Nike, first and foremost a sports brand, takes seriously.

Armstrong is not the first to be caught in a scandal and this isn’t the first time brands like Nike have had to break up with even some of their most popular or successful athletes. Though initially Nike firmly stood behind Armstrong, when allegations of his activities became a threat to the brand and its mission, Nike had to let him go. Nike was clear about its position — it does not condone the use of performance enhancing drugs — and was not willing to let an individual with a tarnished reputation ruin its own. Though losing Armstrong may not create long-term damage to Nike or Livestrong, losing a valuable and popular evangelist is expensive, and it’s not something that any brand should take lightly.

Here are some tips to ensure successful and positive brand-sponsor relationships and how to deal with a crisis if it occurs:

  • Stay true to your brand and mission. There are a lot of voices out there, many of which may control your social media accounts. Recently, KitchenAid was quick to make sure errant tweets from an employee would never be sent again. Concentrate on having one voice for your brand; it’ll make things go a lot smoother.
  • Find brand evangelists who have similar beliefs and values to those of your company. Nobody can predict future scandals, but maintaining relationships with partners you can trust can relieve a lot of stress.
  • Create a clear policy. As my colleague Dave Gifford wrote about the media gaffes of Olympic athletes, athletes must be conscious of who they are speaking for, and what they expect. Make guidelines clear and make sure evangelists are aware of the company’s mission. Endorsed athletes aren’t just representing themselves anymore when they’re wearing the swoosh.
  • Don’t lie. For both brands and individuals, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out, especially with the entire web at the world’s fingertips. Avoid a scandal by coming clean right out of the gate. It’s easier to remember the truth than a lie. Just don’t do it.

Ultimately, we know that humans make mistakes and so will brands. However, by implementing the right crisis communications plan we can hope to mitigate those mistakes and try to make the best of a bad situation, even if it means halting the race when something gets thrown in the spokes.

Follow Kallie Bullock on Twitter @kallieswaggg

(Image via ABC News)