How To Avoid A Star-Spangled Controversy

Nothing gets attention, even in a holiday week, like a good controversy. Something to set your social media feeds aflame and give you the chance to “take sides.”

In honor of the upcoming Fourth of July holiday we bring you an unequivocally American PR crisis. It features a major U.S. company (Nike), football (via Colin Kaepernick) and cries of racism.

It all started when Nike manufactured the Air Max 1 USA – a sneaker featuring an early version of the American flag known as the “Betsy Ross” flag on the heel – to celebrate Independence Day in the U.S. The shoes were released to retailers and scheduled to go on sale this week but were abruptly recalled from store shelves. Colin Kaepernick, a Nike endorser and face of a recent Nike ad campaign, notified the company that they should not sell the shoes because the Betsy Ross flag is an offensive symbol to some because of its connection to the era of slavery.

Kaepernick, of course, has become a polarizing figure in this country since he began kneeling during the national anthem during games to call attention to racial inequality.

This incident highlights an important business issue – the challenges some companies have getting in front of or even preventing distracting controversies. That often includes a lack diversity among decision makers. Had Nike thought about this differently and maybe had different people “in the room” during the process of conceptualizing, producing and communicating about the shoe – the outcome may have been different.

As PR professionals, we pay close attention to news and how business decisions impact public perception. There are constant examples of issues that could have been avoided by someone simply asking earlier in the process, “Does this make sense?” or “Do others see this the same way I do?”

We consistently advise clients to think both carefully and inclusively about their audiences when structuring a communications strategy, even if it takes more time.