Brands are walking a tightrope with Ronaldo support amid rape allegations

I don't know whether Nike makes tightrope-walking shoes but its PR advisors have shown they can tread a fine line with their response to the Ronaldo rape allegation.

Beattie Communications crisis communications expert Chris Gilmour.
Beattie Communications crisis communications expert Chris Gilmour.

Cristiano Ronaldo, the $1bn face of the sportswear giant’s football range, denies a claim he raped a woman during a break in Las Vegas in 2009.

It’s only a week since Electronic Arts launched the Fifa 19 video game, with the Juventus star’s face on its cover.

It would be easy for both companies to dispense summary justice and sever all ties, with a wary eye on the #MeToo movement that inspired Ronaldo’s accuser to claim she signed a £288,000 non-disclosure agreement.

The Portuguese denies the allegation, saying his conscience is clear. But for brands associated with him, there’s more than a whiff of danger.

Nike, in particular, has to be careful. Its 'right on' creds are at a high after making Colin Kaepernick, the American football star who started the "take a knee" protest against racism, the face of its latest Just Do It campaign.

So, what do they do? That favourite of the crisis communications expert – play a straight bat. They acknowledge there may be a problem and let everybody know they are thinking about it: "We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation."

Meanwhile, millions of young people play Fifa – EA can’t be seen to tell them it’s OK to sexually assault anyone.

They also played it straight: "We have seen the concerning report that details allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo. We are closely monitoring the situation, as we expect cover athletes and ambassadors to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with EA’s values."

Both statements are bland and have to be. Billions of pounds are riding on the outcome of these allegations and a brand that doesn’t take them seriously will suffer.

But they can’t leap to judgement. Summary justice before charges are laid or evidence is considered by a court does no-one any favours.

And although many PR people would urge brands to drop the star on the whiff of such an allegation, pragmatically, Christmas is around the corner. There’s a lot of sportswear and computer games to be sold. Though sponsors won’t be playing up their links to Ronaldo’s damaged brand at the moment, if and when he is exonerated, his reputation can be repaired.

Juventus have been strident in defence of their £99.2m summer signing – with 99.2 million reasons to do so. The Italian club tweeted: "Ronaldo has shown in recent months his great professionalism and dedication, which is appreciated by everyone at Juventus.

"The events allegedly dating back almost 10 years ago do not change this opinion, which is shared by anyone who has come into contact with this great champion."

They’ll hope their confidence in the man who earned them €55m in shirt sales in 24 hours is founded. I’d advise against this response, but understand why they’ve done it.

Chris Gilmour, crisis communications expert at Beattie Communications

Thumbnail image via @juventusfcen on Twitter

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