PR pros on NFL boycott threats: Sponsors should tread carefully

NFL sponsors tread a delicate line between standing up for the right to free expression and accommodating views they don't share.

NEW YORK: PR pros say National Football League sponsors should tread carefully as talks of a boycott continue, following a wave of protests by players as President Donald Trump maintained his attack on athletes who kneel in protest against the national anthem.

Trump also disinvited State Warriors star Steph Curry from the White House on Saturday morning. Curry is also an Under Armour endorser, which may be why the brand was one of the first NFL sponsors to release a statement on the protests, posting a tweet on Saturday stating that the brand "stands by its athletes for free speech, expression, and a unified America." The company later deleted that tweet and replaced it with one that adds the word "flag."

But people were largely not happy with Under Armour’s statement, according to a social media sentiment analysis by Brandwatch.

Under Armour has been mentioned more than 46,000 times online this past week, and September 23 had the most mentions of the brand, with over 13,400 - a greater than 187% increase in mentions from the day before.

The elevation in mentions was in response to Under Armour’s Saturday tweet, Brandwatch senior PR data analyst Kellan Terry told PRWeek.

"The sentiment around Under Armour for the week is split 50/50, and it is very negative on September 23 at 70.8% negative, but it was people who were angry with the brand for its statement," said Terry.

Under Armour reps were not immediately available for comment.

On Sunday morning, Trump called for a boycott of the NFL in response to players using the national anthem to protest police profiling of African-Americans. Social media users have also been calling for a boycott of NFL sponsors.

When asked how they respond to this, a rep from one sponsor, Nike, said the brand "supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society."

Ford, another major sponsor, said in an emailed statement that it "respects individuals’ rights to express their views, even if they are not ones we share. That’s part of what makes America great."

"Nike and Ford's conversations are too large, and these events have had minimal impact on their discussions," said Terry, when looking at social media sentiment around statements from those brands. "This is the benefit of having a massive social conversation."

Sponsor Papa John's said in an emailed statement on Tuesday: "In America, we should respect those who have served and stand up to injustice. We need to work together to be better."

Another sponsor, FedEx, explained it is a proud NFL sponsor that works with all 32 teams.

"We expect there will continue to be significant dialogue happening between the league, teams, and players related to the recent protests and there will be exciting competition on the field this season," FedEx’s SVP of integrated marketing and communications, Patrick Fitzgerald, told PRWeek via email.

After reviewing sponsors’ responses to calls for a boycott, John Marino, chief operating officer and MD of Marino, a full service strategic communications firm, particularly thought FedEx’s was moot.

"Sponsors should not feel obligated to release a statement if they are not planning on saying anything," said Marino. "Brands feel that pressure to say something, but sometimes it is not necessary. There’s more to come on this issue."

Christopher Barger, founding partner of Brain+Trust Partners, said NFL sponsors should emphasize in comms around this matter that they support unity, commonality, and bringing people together.

"They would do well to emphasize that football brings us together to cheer, groan, curse the refs, hope, and dream - and at a time when we have so much else that divides us, we as a sponsor choose to focus on the 60 minutes each week that unite us. Once the game starts, we're all just football fans," Barger added.

Brands must protect themselves and respond in a manner that allows them to be the solution, rather than a contributor to the problem, advised Dan Rene, an SVP at Levick.

Showcasing existing programs that provide support for U.S. troops and veterans allows sponsors to rise above the debate and "make it more likely for those looking for villains to choose a more attractive target," Rene said.

Other CSR activities should also be highlighted to show how a boycott against the brand will harm good work that is being accomplished, he added.

"Sponsors who highlight their patriotism and good deeds without joining the fight will win," Rene said. "Those that join in the mudslinging will surely get dirty."

PR pros agreed NFL sponsors need not be concerned about the national anthem protests and should not overreact.

The odds are that this controversy will only be at the front of the news for another week or so, based upon 2017’s quickly changing news cycle, said Barger.

"There is an element of ‘ride it out’ to this," he said. "Few Trump-related boycotts, either supporting or opposing him, have had much staying power or long-term impact. This too shall pass, and when it does many sponsors might regret any rash moves."

Sponsors should also consider that moving away from the NFL might offend as many customers as staying with the league.

"Research and analysis on their customers is a critical aspect of any program right now," said Barger.

For this story, PRWeek also reached out to, and did not hear back from NFL sponsors including: Mars, Frito-Lay, Procter & Gamble, Verizon, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Pepsi, Visa, Bridgestone, and Anheuser-Busch.

The only brands Terry has seen using trending hashtags around this matter, such as #TakeTheKnee, #TakesAKnee and #TakeAKneeNFL, have been media outlets reporting on the events and civil rights nonprofits such as Amnesty International.

"From a marketing and community management perspective, brands have thought it best to stay out of such a ragingly divided conversation," said Terry. "Some are calling for an NFL boycott, and brands don’t want to attract the same type of attention."

The NFL’s teams made $1.25 billion from corporate partners last year, Forbes reported.

Media outlets reported that NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said on Monday he hadn’t seen any business impact - positive or negative - in the aftermath of the president’s comments. Regarding sponsors, he said the league speaks constantly with its partners and wasn’t aware of any that were worried about the weekend’s events.

On Monday, the New York Post reported that Lockhart, referring to Trump’s excuse when he was caught making vulgar comments about women on an Access Hollywood tape, said: "Everyone should know, including the president, that this is what real locker room talk is."

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