Oscar Pistorius murder: Cautionary tale for sponsors?

Oscar Pistorius celebrates winning the gold in the Men's 400m at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Pistorius now faces a murder charge in the shooting death of his girlfriend in South Africa.

The celebrated double-amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius now faces a murder charge in the shooting death of his girlfriend in South Africa. Before this recent turn, his compelling story brought him corporate sponsors like Nike.

Now he’s the latest in a long line of athletes in legal jeopardy, moral trouble or both. Companies that sponsor athletes have an evolving playbook for dealing with incidents like these, and communications professionals give Nike high marks for its response.

Shortly after Pistorius was arrested, a Nike ad with the unfortunate slogan “I am the bullet in the chamber” disappeared from his website. Nike put out a brief statement expressing sympathy for the families and saying it won’t comment while police investigate.

“An A+ response” is how legal crisis communicator Rich Nichols, with PRO Sports Communications, describes Nike’s move. As an attorney, his clients include Marion Jones, the track athlete who lost her Olympic medals after admitting performance-enhancing drug use. Nichols says Nike is among the best at managing scandal smartly.

“That’s why they’re number one at what they do,” he says.

Nike has certainly got plenty of experience with scandal, from Lance Armstrong to Tiger Woods, to name a few. Like on the track, becoming number one is about speed.

“Sponsors are expected to have a reply much more rapidly than they were in the past,” says Steve Dittmore, a sports management professor at University of Arkansas and former communications staffer for the Olympics.

Nike’s statement was brief. The terseness of a response is key to removing the brand from the bad headlines.

“More talking equals more coverage,” says crisis PR consultant Eric Dezenhall. “So what you’re getting is very simple statements and that’s it. We’re not gonna say anything more.”

A key feature of the response at this stage, before a court’s judgment or the athlete’s admission of wrongdoing, is that the sponsor won’t criticize or support the athlete. Withholding judgment gives the company options.

If a star is rehabilitated, sponsors can continue their multimillion-dollar investment. But if things get worse, they’re still free to dump the athlete.

Mark Garrison: After Pistorius was arrested, a Nike ad with the unfortunate slogan “I am the bullet in the chamber” disappeared from his website. Nike put out a brief statement expressing sympathy for the families and saying it won’t comment while police investigate. The terseness is key to removing the brand from the bad headlines.

Eric Dezenhall: More talking equals more coverage. So what you’re getting is very simple statements and that’s it. We’re not gonna say any more.

PR crisis consultant Eric Dezenhall gives Nike high marks for its strategy and he’s not the only one.

Rich Nichols: That’s an A+ response.

Attorney Rich Nichols is with PRO Sports Communications. His clients include Marion Jones, the track athlete who lost her Olympic medals after admitting performance-enhancing drug use. Nichols says Nike has a long record of managing scandal smartly.

Nichols: Nike’s always been that way. That’s why they’re number one at what they do.

They’ve certainly got plenty of experience, from Lance Armstrong to Tiger Woods, to name a few. Like on the track, becoming number one is about speed. Steve Dittmore is a sports management professor at University of Arkansas.

Steve Dittmore: Sponsors are expected to have a reply much more rapidly than they were in the past.

Sponsors tell the athletes they’ve invested in, and the world, they’re withholding judgment. Again, Eric Dezenhall.

Dezenhall: We will neither embrace you or chastise you, but we will go into suspended animation pending the resolution of a certain situation.

That way the sponsor retains the option to keep the star if things turn out all right, or dump him if they don’t. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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