November 7th, 2022
Commentary From Crisis Management Expert Edward Segal, Bestselling Author of the Award-Winning Book “Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies” (Nicholas Brealey)
Companies seeking to profit from relationships with celebrities can find themselves in a crisis when celebrities do or say controversial things that can tarnish corporate brands, images and reputations.
Because the court of public opinion can render its verdict quickly, corporate executives need to react just as fast to help prevent or mitigate damage to their brands.
The latest example is Adidas, which has sold rapper Kanye West’s line of shoes and has had a marketing partnership with him for almost a decade. But the singer, who now calls himself Ye, continues to make international headlines with his antisemitic comments and views.
Ye has not apologized or recanted, which today led Adidas to terminate its partnership with the singer.
“Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech,” the company said in a statement. “Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness.”
Other companies, including CAA, the talent agency that has represented Ye, has also cut its ties with the artist.
Slow To Respond
“The German footwear giant said at the start of this month that its partnership was under review — but since then has not issued any updates and continues to release new Yeezy merchandise, even as the rapper doubles down on antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories,” NPR reported.
“The only surprise here is that it took Adidas way too long to respond,” John Goodman of John Goodman PR observed via email.
“This was such an outright anti-Semitic rant that it deserved an immediate response from the company. Sometimes it’s wise to wait a while before you respond. But this was so blatant and so offensive that Adidas needed to respond much sooner.”
“In crisis management, success is defined as not only doing the right thing, but doing it at the right time. In this case, Adidas did the right thing by terminating their relationship with Ye, and their statement hit the right notes, but they took too long to do it,” Nick Kalm, founder and CEO of Reputation Partners, a national strategic communications and public relations firm, said via email.
“Ye’s outrageous statements and actions began weeks ago, with the firestorm beginning immediately thereafter. It was a bit surprising that a consumer-facing company like Adidas was so slow to respond to the crisis, but perhaps it was due to the significant financial charge the company incurred as a result of the separation.
“In any case, any company with celebrity endorsers must have a crisis plan and scenario-based decision-making completed in advance,” Kalm observed.
‘Every Situation Is Different’
“Every situation is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. However, a good rule of thumb is to see what happens,” Stacy Elmore, cofounder of The Luxury Pergola, a company that works with social media influencers, said via email.
“Sometimes the controversy will blow over and be forgotten within a week or two, in which case you can resume normal operations as usual. But other times, the controversy will continue to be a topic of conversation (or even grow), and in that case, you’ll need to decide whether continuing to work with that celebrity is worth the potential backlash.”
“Keep in mind that the world doesn’t revolve around your brand—bad news for celebrities often means bad news for brands too. And finally, remember that the news cycle moves fast—if you do decide to part ways with a celebrity, don’t try to publicly embarrass them. It’s always a bad idea to burn bridges,” she counseled.
Adidas’ Kanye West crisis demonstrates “some of the inherent risks that brand collaborations with celebrities can entail and how brands might react. The nature of the controversy and the terms of the contract with the celebrity are often considerations that will guide brands” in how they respond, Ainsworth Bailey, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toledo, said via email.
“Oftentimes, the controversy is of such a nature that public outcry will lead brands to dissociate themselves from the celebrity and terminate relationships with the person.
“However, termination is not always the response, as brands sometimes take into account whether it is a controversy that centers on some supposed moral failing, such as cheating on one’s spouse (Nike stood by Tiger Woods in this case) [or] kneeling in protest (Nike also stood by Colin Kaepernick in this case)…” Bailey recalled.
Setting The Ground Rules
“When assessing a brand, or company’s, ties to any endorsements including other brands, celebrities, etc., the most important work is done before the agreement is ever made,” Cassaundra Kalba, a publicist at Otter PR , said via email.
“Too often, brands are looking for high-profile people in their industry or in the media at the moment and don’t take the time to truly assess how mutually beneficial this partnership is going to be.”
“The C-suite at companies…such as Adidas, need to not only make sure their target markets align with the proposed endorsee, but also their values, morals, mission, etc. By doing this ahead of time, you can mitigate a lot of risk and potential issues within the partnership that may arise down the line,” she recommended.
“At the end of the day, put your own brand’s reputation before any other partnerships,” Kalba advised.
Edward Segal is a crisis management expert, consultant and the bestselling author of the award-winning Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies (Nicholas Brealey). Click here to Order the book.
Segal is a Leadership Strategy Senior Contributor for Forbes.com where he covers crisis-related news, topics and issues. Click here to read his recent articles.