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Oscar Pistorius murder: Cautionary tale for sponsors?

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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.

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