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3 Experts Explain How Brands Can Avoid a Sochi Games #PRFail

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Lots of brands obviously want to promote during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But they also want to avoid what happened to Coke and McDonald’s, which got a lot of bad press after gay-rights activists criticized their campaigns and hijacked the #CheerstoSochi hashtag in protest of Russia’s new anti-gay laws.

AT&T, on the other hand, just made news for becoming the first major company to actively speak out against those same laws and pressure other brands to do the same.

So how can brands create Olympics campaigns without running into the troubles encountered by Coke and McD’s? We talked to three PR and social media experts to get their opinions.

Stephan A. Roth runs OutThink Partners, a communications/marketing firm specializing in the LGBT market. He also served as the president of PRSA Los Angeles in 2013 and currently sits on the org’s board of directors.

What did Coke and McDonald’s do to get themselves into this mess?

“If you’re going to talk the talk you have to walk the walk. Coke and McD’s and Visa have made somewhat tepid comments in support of diversity and human rights, but they really didn’t step up to the plate.

One of the first brands that suffered was Stoli Vodka, but they did a lot to repair their relationship; they engaged with the community and announced some very big sponsorships of some important gay and lesbian organizations.”

What’s the lesson learned here?

“Brands should really engage with the impacted communities. This goes back to August, when the Human Rights Campaign posted a letter on their website outlining some different things that sponsors could do. [Ed. note: HRC will also track NBC's Olympics coverage.]

No one said ‘pull out of Russia’, but if Coke and McDonald’s had engaged, then they might have found ways to avoid this.

The three things I think companies should do:

  1. Listen to advocates
  2. Engage with the communities
  3. Learn from history: It’s crisis comms 101: don’t try to ignore it or sweep it under the carpet. For Stoli, the protest died almost as quickly as it started.”

So by attempting to avoid controversy, Coke and McDonald’s made the problem worse?

“Exactly. No one has it out for those two, but people are being harassed and jailed, and there’s a law proposed now to take children away from gay and lesbian parents. In this case, money talks.”

Here’s a very disturbing video released by HRC to remind the public of the seriousness of the problem.

Is it no longer a big risk for Western brands to take a pro-gay stance? 

“That’s a safe assumption. It depends on audience and product category, but…I think Hillary Clinton said it best when she said ‘gay rights are human rights.’

Some brands that have led the way: American Airlines, Wells Fargo and the financial industry at large, Anheuser-Busch and General Motors.”

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MWW’s chief social strategist Mitzi Emrich focuses on responsiveness, saying:

“Increased attention on advertising campaigns during the Olympics almost certainly means that many companies who have heavily invested in sponsorships around the Sochi games will be targeted by activists.

Any brand engaging in paid or earned media during the Sochi Olympics should establish global monitoring around the clock. In addition, brands should reevaluate their editorial and content strategy each day as topics or trends shift—issues that are viewed positively one minute can be seen as incredibly negative the next.

Finally, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms should be contacted at the first signs of an attack; while they will not actively monitor for brandjacking on a company’s behalf, they are ready, willing and able to help brands under fire.”

From Sal Basile, senior content strategist at NYC digital agency Ready Set Rocket, on the long-term effects of missteps:

“Coke and McDonald’s Olympic campaign woes boil down to the brands’ mismanagement of their own influence. Huge companies like Coke and McDonald’s are too influential and powerful to avoid current events, especially when rushing into the foreground of the conversation. By directly tying their brands to topics like the oppression in Russia, they are entering into a conversation, whether they want to or not.

Attempting to brush off debates, hijacks and other campaign obstacles can cause a severe ‘Streisand Effect’ to ripple across the brand for years to come (ie: Chik-Fil-A’s LGBT travesty)…A clear stance like this might be a bit much for some companies to commit to, but this is when knowing your brand, your brand’s audience and the severity of the issues at hand can help determine if it is the right time.”

What do we think? Have brands learned from others’ mistakes?

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