When is crisis a four-letter word? Just ask Nike.

by | Nov 21, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Crisis communications befell Nike this year when the sports apparel manufacturer rang up not one, but two crises. Managing one can be an onerous task, but two?

Crisis One

Duke University’s rising star freshman basketball player, Zion Williamson, fell during a big game at which President Obama was also in attendance. The fall was a result of one of Williamson’s Nike shoes literally falling apart. Not only did it fall apart on camera, but reporters also suggested that they could see Obama mouth, “His shoe broke.”

To compound the situation, Williamson sustained a season-ending injury as a result of his malfunctioning shoe. How did this affect confidence in Nike products and future sales? For the stock market, it had a tremendous effect. CBS reported that the shoe failure cost Nike $1.1 billion in stock value the very next day of trading.

When is crisis a four-letter word? Just ask Nike.

Source: CNN Business

Nike was apparently unprepared for anything like this, but should have been. Accidents and season-ending injuries do occur.

What Nike did do right was to immediately wish Williamson a speedy recovery. The company also labelled the shoe failure as “an isolated occurrence.” It told CBS that “the quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance.” Nike added that it was looking into the cause of the failure.

Mario Natarelli, a brand expert from New York, told CBS it was “a major brand failure: for a company committed to performance. Donovan Mitchell, a Utah Jazz guard tweeted his followers to remember “all the money that went into this game,” a reference that Nike was Duke’s exclusive supplier, a fact also reported by ESPN.

Nike didn’t respond to Natarelli’s comment nor Mitchell’s tweet. It should have addressed Natarelli’s comment by reassuring the public that it takes such matters quite seriously and was seeking ways to prevent this from ever occurring again.

Crisis Two

As people who follow Nike know, the company is known for its progressive stands, especially on social justice issues. So, when the company cut endorsement pay for athletes on maternity leave, imagine the uproar that caused! Some athletes like Allyson Felix, track star and activist, publicly left Nike and signed up with Athleta, another apparel company in what she told Yahoo Sports a “holistic sponsorship.”

Olympic runner Alysia Montano also left Nike. She told the New York Times, “If companies want to stand by the inspirational slogans they tout, they must ensure sponsored female athletes receive maternity leave.” The Times also noted that the four Nike people who negotiate track and field contracts are all men.

Reddit, the online platform to discuss various social issues and topics also asked people to weigh in. Its founder also happens to be tennis star Serena Williams’ husband.

Finally, as if in response to public outcries more than company values, Nike announced it was changing its policy regarding pregnant athletes. In its statement, Nike said, “Last year, we standardized our approach across all sports to support our female athletes during pregnancy, but we recognize we can go even further.” (emphasis added).

How and why Nike didn’t go further is puzzling, especially after the backlash. And what’s equally perplexing is where was Nike’s marketing and communications department before and during all of this?

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian founded 5WPR, a leading PR agency..


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