More than one-in-10 of global citizens believe human rights is the most important issue companies must address.
By Alison DaSilva, Executive Vice President, Cone Communications
Part of the Consumer Perspectives: Turning Insights into Action series
With financial investments nearing $1 billion, major Olympic sponsors often look to leverage the inspiring, warm-fuzzy halo of the events and athletes to build their brand affinity and bottom-line. This time around, however, sponsors are also trying to mitigate risk and protect their reputations as activists pressure them to take bold stands against Russia’s domestic legislation banning homosexual “propaganda.”
With stories of discrimination, abuse and detention of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Russia pouring in, social media ensured these gained international attention quickly this year. However, the Human Rights Campaign started putting pressure on all the Olympic sponsors to take very specific actions as early as last August, suggesting they denounce Russia’s legislation to the International Olympic Committee, publicly support the Russian LGBT community and use marketing resources to build awareness and support for equality.
Consumers’ passion for this issue comes as no surprise with research suggesting that more than one-in-10 of global citizens believe human rights is the most important issue companies must address.
Heeding the Call
AT&T heeded the call, and just days ahead of the opening ceremonies, became the first major U.S. company with Olympic ties to strongly condemn Russia’s anti-gay laws. On its consumer blog, AT&T wrote:
“We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.”
Google, in its usual style, used the power of its homepage and “Google doodle” to feature images of Olympic athletes against a special rainbow-colored, Olympic-themed version of its iconic logo. Under the search bar, Google quoted the Olympic Charter, which promises all athletes the right to practice sport.
Playing it Safe
Unlike the progressive stances of AT&T and Google, however, no other major Olympic sponsor took action beyond posting tepid website messages of “inclusion” and a commitment to work with the International Olympics Committee to ensure everyone at the games are treated fairly and without discrimination. These messages varied little from typical boilerplate fare and did nothing to demonstrate a true stance against Russia’s politics.
For some brands, however, inaction turned into a public relations nightmare with social media giving activists a highly effective platform to ignite a global movement of protests, demanding boycotts of sponsors' products to proactively address human rights violations.
Bitten by Social Media. Again.
McDonald’s, for example, introduced #CheersToSochi in January with the intent that consumers could send support to Olympians. Instead, activists hijacked the handle to send messages to the sponsors, including:
“Hey, @McDonalds: You’re sending #CheersToSochi while goons wearing Olympic uniforms assault LGBT people,”
One tweet included a photograph of Russian protesters being arrested with the comment “Use @Visa for your bail!”
The fast food giant eventually surrendered the hashtag after activists translated it into numerous languages and used it to highlight Russia's repression.
LGBT activists also hijacked Coca-Cola’s campaign, which was designed to allow consumers to put messages on Coke cans cheering the Olympic athletes. Instead, people used the cans to highlight messages about Russian’s anti-gay brutality and Coca-Cola’s lack of action by putting phrases like “Blood-Money,” “LetsAllBeGay” and “HelpLGBTInRu” on the cans.
These activists' response to companies who chose to stay quiet about Russia’s LGBT discrimination laws shows how much we expect from multinational companies today. In fact, nine-in-10 consumers globally believe that companies must go beyond the minimum standards required by law to operate responsibly and address social and environmental issues, according to our 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study.
Universally driving affinity, preference and loyalty, CSR endures as a mighty reputational booster. Thanks to the explosion of social media, citizens around the world are uncovering and sharing information without constraint – nearly two-thirds of global citizens are using social media to engage with companies around issues – and the risk or reward for corporations is massive.
Sponsorships in the Age of Social Media: 5 Tips
Transparent communications are crucial, of course, but so too is dynamic stakeholder engagement. While the Sochi games will soon be over, Russia's discrimination against the LGBT community probably won't. Here then are a few lessons for companies as they consider future sponsorship opportunities, especially in politically charged markets:
- Stay true to corporate values and CSR commitments.
- Work with activist groups to understand and address potential issues before they ignite a crisis.
- Encourage dialogue. Boilerplate responses will do more harm than good.
- Use social media to your advantage.
- Be proactive. Sitting on the sidelines may cause more reputational risk.