SBJ/Oct. 28-Nov. 3, 2013/Opinion

Russia picks the wrong fight: How will sponsors respond?

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
— Olympic Charter

Sponsors, get ready for the LGBT Games in Sochi. Russia’s law against gay “propaganda” has lit a controversial flame that is being fanned by media and gay rights advocates around the world.

Many in the LGBT community are calling for an Olympic boycott. Major brands like McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble, both Olympic sponsors, have been targeted and activists are demanding that these corporations dump their sponsorships.

Today, consumers see sponsors as having the financial influence to effect change and are asking them to hold properties accountable. Complicating matters further, the relationship between sponsors and consumers has also evolved. Social media has strengthened the consumer voice, and when brands don’t respond it is clear and visible to all.

Does a sponsor need to re-examine its brand’s role as social advocate based on consumer expectations? I feel compelled to ask this question among others to start an important dialogue.

With respect to Sochi, the Olympic Charter clearly states that “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” While sexuality is not specifically addressed, it is certainly in the spirit of the rights that have been outlined and would be a natural extension of the charter.

The International Olympic Committee has been clear in its position that the legislation will not affect those attending and that sport is an equal opportunity activity that will be maintained under its watch.

Will the IOC be able to truly offer protection? Will LGBT athletes be OK so long as they do not demonstrate their lifestyle? Barring a complete show of support for LGBT athletes and LGBT rights in Russia, gay rights advocates simply won’t be satisfied unless the law or the venue is changed.

Using the Olympics as a platform to advocate for human rights and social issues is not a new concept.

The images that come immediately to mind for me are of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in 1936 in the face of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine. Not to be forgotten is the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raising a single black-gloved fist.

And while the IOC does not have formal authority to oversee human rights issues, the goal of Olympism, in its words, is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

Impact on sponsors

The story will certainly cast a shadow over the Games and distract from activations and the reasons surrounding why companies get engaged. Sponsors also must be prepared to answer the question multiple times leading into and during the Games. Understand, this is not necessarily a bad thing if the brand is prepared for the question. Sponsors will likely be asked what position (if any) they have with respect to gay participation in sports.

All sponsor brands can do the right thing by supporting the broader gay community in their own countries and all athletes regardless of their gender, religion, race or sex. Beyond this, sponsors can choose to take greater action to profile the cause leading into and during the Games.

Sponsors must go back to their brand values as well as their strategic reasons for sponsoring the property; for the Olympics this typically is rooted in national pride and athleticism. And sponsors should consider the long term: This should not be about a quick-hit marketing win. Keep in mind the gay community may recognize it as opportunistic and not genuine if there is no sustained support or commitment to the cause. Any action taken here needs to be for the long term. Sponsors can:

• Point to why they are there and espouse the Olympic Charter that clearly advocates for human rights globally.

• Stand by the IOC as the governing body applies pressure to ensure that athlete rights are protected and impress upon the IOC that it consider these issues when evaluating future host city bids.

• Express equal support to athletes participating in the Olympics on behalf of their competing country regardless of their gender, race, religion or sexuality. At the core, this is about equality, not about pro-gay propaganda.

• Widely promote their own gay platform (should they have one) in their home country both through paid and PR media channels during the Games. Again, this must be authentic and live beyond the Games themselves.

Outlook for future

Today, sponsors factor in brand alignment and strategic fit of potential partners. In the future, sponsors also must consider the corporate values and commitment to social responsibility that properties demonstrate. Beyond this, sponsors must be ready to advocate for the views of their organization and their consumers when the time comes.

Will we see athletes take a stand in Sochi? I think so. Sponsors will need to be nimble in how they handle potential impromptu protests from athletes or demonstrators. Brands would be wise to express support for any sponsored athletes regardless of sexuality and stand by them in this moment. However, this does not mean that they have to associate themselves with a protest or action of the athlete that extends outside their participation in the Games. Active communication with partners prior to Sochi and active listening during the Games will allow these brands the best opportunity to succeed. They should have a proactive plan for how they would respond in these types of scenarios. Bottom line: Be prepared.

Russia has picked a fight with the wrong audience at the wrong time, and given that the LGBT community has made so much progress in recent years around the world, this is a fight it will take on.

Unless the law is struck down, this will indeed go down as the LGBT Games.

Matthew Logue (mlogue@sesponsorshipgroup.com) is vice president of strategy and partner at S&E Sponsorship Group.

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