Can anyone recall when Reebok wanted to position itself as a socially responsible brand?
Over the years, the company has invested millions of dollars to promote its corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. More than a decade ago, it set up the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, which gives financial aid to human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, the Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and The Carter Center.
The company also became the sponsor of the Reebok Human Rights Award, which provides grants of $50,000 to human-rights activists under the age of 30 "who have made significant contributions to the field of human rights strictly through nonviolent means. Since the awards were introduced in 1988, more than 60 recipients from over 35 countries have received the award.
Reebok has invested millions in CSR programs, but I'm guessing not nearly as many millions as it has invested in Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers star who last year signed a five-year, $50 million endorsement deal with the sneaker company. So when forced to choose between social responsibility and loyalty to the troubled basketball player, marketing execs at Reebok apparently did not have to think too long or too hard.
"Allen's celebrity status, not the facts, continue to fuel these proceedings, Reebok said in a statement after it heard the charges. "We believe Allen will be vindicated, and Reebok, along with his millions of fans, will still stand by him when he is."
In fact, it seems likely that the popular Iverson will escape the charges against him - already much reduced - with little more than a slap on the wrist. But his behavior hardly stands as a shining example to the nation's sneaker-buying youth.
Such thuggish behavior used to prompt responsible companies to exercise the morals clause in endorsement contracts. But today, any unsavory act can be justified as long as it improves a company's bottom line. In fact, it's hard to escape the suspicion that Reebok was secretly delighted at their pitchman's arrest - perhaps it would imbue their products with a little more street credibility.
If that's how Reebok wants to market itself, who am I to object? But to engage in that kind of cynical marketing while still posing as a socially responsible corporation brings the whole notion of CSR into disrepute.
It reinforces the public's skepticism by suggesting that companies embrace CSR because it's "good PR, but quickly abandon any pretense of a social conscience if there's a risk that it might cost them either money or market share.
For CSR to be effective and convincing it must be part of a company's DNA. It has to be reflected in everything it does. That means it has to be a commitment that includes actions, as well as words.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.