News Analysis: Nike's reputation in spotlight again

Nike's StandupSpeakup campaign has brought accusations of opportunism and left it feeling 'sore'. Adam Hill asks if this points to a wider PR failure.

Nike's PR initiative to help tackle racism in football, StandupSpeakup, was backed by luminaries such as Ronaldinho and had the makings of an admirable corporate attempt to deal with a malignant social ill.

The sportswear giant said it wanted to leave a lasting legacy, only recouping costs from its potentially multi-million-pound sales of black and white wristbands, and using the profits to fund activity by anti-racism groups.

From the outset, though, the company's motives were questioned, notably by Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville. And controversy was recently reignited by Italian and Spanish interest groups saying they were uneasy about taking money from the multinational.

Something seems to have gone badly wrong. Perhaps that's the price you pay for hubris: after all, Nike takes its name from the Greek goddess of victory. The company insists it likes to keep its CSR activities low-profile. And it is hard to assess its agenda when no one there wants to discuss StandupSpeakup with PRWeek.

Nike UK and Ireland corporate responsibility manager Mandy Ayres will only say: 'I don't wish to be evasive but we're feeling particularly sore around this issue and I don't want to throw oil on the fire. It is a good thing to be involved with and we stand by it.'

A senior executive who worked with one of Nike's competitors and knows the market believes the fundamental problem is the way the company approaches PR.

'My feeling is that Nike is so advertising-led, creating huge-impact TV ads, that everything has to be massive and famous,' he says.

'(With StandupSpeakup) Nike's trying hard to be caring but its culture is big, glamorous, Hollywood-style TV slots. My perception is that it has done it as a final thing rather than leading a strategy with it,' he adds.

Corporate protests

For many there is a whiff of the late 1990s in the air, when opposition to the culture of corporate branding found a loud voice and Nike-bashing became almost an international sport.

On one day in 1997, at the height of revelations over the working conditions in some of Nike's Asian sweatshops, there were anti-Nike rallies in 85 cities in 13 countries - a scale of global protest that would leave the average despotic regime feeling sorry for itself.

Partly owing to such public pressure, Nike has cleaned up its act - so much so that one CSR expert says: 'If you poll CSR practitioners, companies such as Nike and Gap tend to come out well. On things such as child-labour issues, they have turned things around.'

By 1999, improvements in pay and working conditions in Nike's foreign factories meant the company was losing its pariah status, a rehabilitation that recent events seem to confirm. Last year's update of its Terminator shoe with a covering of staid Harris Tweed caused a media stir because of its unlikely flirtation with Scottish weavers. Sweatshop labour was barely mentioned.

John Drummond, chief executive of specialist CSR marcoms company Corporate Culture, suggests 'product lifecycle marketing' may hold the key to successful PR for Nike. With Nike sweatshops apparently consigned to history, sourcing is a major part of this. So is recycling, and Nike is the company that launched the Mayfly running shoe last year - after 60 miles it is designed to disintegrate and can then be posted back to Nike, which recycles them for running tracks, artificial pitches and 'playgrounds' for sports lovers - a major plank of Nike's CSR activity in the UK.

Yet cynics might point out that you still need to buy one of its products to participate in the first place. Perhaps better is the Re-use A Shoe initiative, piloted in partnership with the Salvation Army, with people encouraged to recycle their old trainers (not just Nikes) for this purpose.

'Nike is presenting it as the difference the product makes to people's lives,' says Drummond. There has not yet been any media furore over this programme, perhaps because it is off the radar at present. The company's Extra Time initiative, where employees volunteer - on the company's time - to work on community projects, is similarly low-profile.

Measuring CSR success

Nike has insisted that its involvement in the football anti-racism campaign will not end when all the wristbands are sold, and Drummond adds an intriguing coda to the StandupSpeakup imbroglio.

He says: 'I don't know whether Nike did do anything wrong (in PR terms) and I'm not quite sure why this (campaign) has been so wrong-footed. Communications that really work are based on action. I wouldn't expect Nike to step away from its anti-racism commitment on the basis of negative press. If your beliefs are sincere, you live with criticism.'

Weber Shandwick head of CSR Brendan May adds: 'You should not try to measure the success of a CSR initiative purely by looking at the public recognition of what is done. The consumer is only one part of the web of stakeholders.'

If they are both correct, then the idea of Nike as a PR disaster area may be somewhat wide of the mark.

And the bottom-line figures suggest the company is doing a lot right one way or another. For a supposedly reviled hotbed of exploitative capitalism, Nike makes an awful lot of money. Quarterly earnings to the end of February were up 14 per cent year on year to £1.75bn.

This means that, at least when faced with buying a pair of Nike trainers, a great number of people are happy to ignore the old anti-Nike slogan: Just Don't Do It.

NIKE: 34 YEARS IN THE HEADLINES

- 1971 Swoosh logo bought by company founder Phil Knight for $35 from a graphic-design student

- 1985 Signs NBA rookie and soon-to-be basketball superstar Michael Jordan and launches Air Jordan shoes

- 1988 Launches 'Just Do It' campaign

- 1996 NikeTown stores become focal point for anti-capitalist protests in US cities

- 1997 Global protests at sweatshop conditions in Nike's Asian factories

- 2000 Naomi Klein's No Logo, containing a devastating critique of Nike's commercial activities, published to worldwide acclaim

- 2002 California court rules that comments made by Nike in a letter to a US paper responding to criticism about its labour practices are not covered by the First Amendment right to free speech, thus allowing an activist to sue the company

- 2005 Negative coverage for motives behind StandupSpeakup anti-racism campaign.

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