Gay Rights Competing With Games At Sochi

The 2014 Winter Olympics is an opportunity for brands to promote their products globally. However, a controversial Russian law passed in June 2013 banning propaganda related to “nontraditional sexual relations” — as in anything in support of gay rights — where minors are present, make it imperative for brands to examine their messaging throughout the Games.

In February, 40 human rights organizations called on sponsors to act out and urge Russia to end its discrimination and threats toward the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch released a graphic video containing violent scenes of harassment in Russia to highlight the seriousness of this problem. As a result, the international gay rights group — All Out — organized demonstrations against the Olympic sponsors to urge them to take a stand against the law.

Britain Russia Soschi Protest

Two of the Games’ top sponsors, Coke and McDonald’s, garnered reams of unwanted press after gay rights activists criticized their campaigns, going as far as to hijack their #CheerstoSochi hashtag and use it as a platform to protest Russia’s new anti-gay laws.  Coke and McDonald’s tried to avoid controversy by staying out of the debate, instead triggering a backlash against their brands.

So, the question remains: How do brands navigate the Sochi Games in light of the ongoing controversy?

There are two main approaches that could be taken toward this problem. One, brands could avoid the conversation completely (as Coke and McDonald’s did). Or two, brands could take a stand.

In the case of most companies, it appears it’s no longer a risk for U.S. brands to support a pro-gay stance. If companies were more forthcoming — conveying their support for human rights and equality — they may avoid the problems Coke and McDonald’s did. For example, AT&T actively spoke out against these Russian laws, resulting in more positive attention than any of the Olympic’s major sponsors have received thus far.

Brands must be forthcoming and proactive in situations such as this. Large brands can not avoid current events, especially in cases where they are at the forefront of conversation. They can’t simply avoid the issue. Instead, they should engage with the community and show they are listening — not just talking.

What do you think? What could Coke and McDonald’s have done differently? What can brands learn from their mistakes?

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8 Responses to Gay Rights Competing With Games At Sochi

  1. Patricia Oliverio-Lauderdale says:

    This is a very thought-provoking post Christie. I think you posed fantastic questions. This is a tough circumstance. On the one hand, it can be argued that it is not the responsibility of Coke or McDonald’s to impose their views and beliefs on the Russian government and its laws. Although I agree that the harassment of the LGBT community in Russia is horrendous, it poses the question whether it is the place of U.S. corporations to take a stand or if this issue is something that the Russian government needs to deal with on its own.

    I think you are right that it ended up being a poor decision for Coke and McDonald’s to completely avoid the issue. One of the first things we learn in public relations is to be proactive and acknowledge that problems exist. I agree with you that the companies needed to show they were listening. I don’t know if it was necessary for them to take a definite stand, but I do think that they could have started a conversation about the topic to have people be aware that they were not ignoring it. I think that it would have been good for the brands to especially note that they did not support the harassment and beating of the LGBT community. Whether the brands want to stand with propaganda supporting or not supporting “nontraditional sexual relations” is one thing, but I think that they should have stepped in when it came to violence over the issue.

    I think you bring up a great example of a difficult position for public relation practitioners. It is a problem that is externally driven, but they needed to have a plan in place ahead of time. My thought is that neither Coke nor McDonald’s thought about this possible problem and had no plan in place. That’s why they decided to stay quiet.

  2. Abby Dugan says:

    This is the hot topic right now surrounding the Olympics. I think it’s interesting how the sponsors have to deal with “supporting” the Olympics. I recently watched an interview with openly gay figure skater Johnny Weir and he said if he could, he would still compete in the Sochi Olympic Games. He respects the Olympics and what they stand for: bringing the world together for friendly competition. I think Coke handled their sponsorship of the Games well because on their website they explained they were part of the Olympics because it is about competition and the athletes. This was a great post!

  3. Emily Wininger says:

    As social media continues to gain more popularity, the need for brands to be engaged on these channels increases as well. Although there is a need for brands to be engaged on social media, they need to be more aware of how they are representing themselves, especially when there is a crisis with their own company or a conflict in the news.

    When the power went out at the Super Bowl in 2013, Oreo was one of the first to post on social media with a tweet saying “You can still dunk in the dark” winning numerous marketing awards.

    However, where should a company draw the line?

    There has been a lot of controversy around the 2014 Winter Olympics due to the Russian law banning propaganda related to “nontraditional sexual relations.” Whereas, some brands spoke out against Russian law, such as AT&T, others avoided the issue altogether such as Coke and McDonald’s. When a company decides to stay silent about issues, there is a lack of transparency and the brand. At times, it could even be inferred that these brands are in support of Russia’s law.

    Although one can understand why Coke and McDonald’s chose to ignore the issue, they are major brands in the spotlight already due to their sponsorship. What strikes me as strange is Coke refused to comment on the Sochi issue and during the Super Bowl launched a commercial highlighting diversity in America.

    If you are going to have a commercial highlighting diversity, you should speak up about injustices towards a large group of people in a country who is hosting the Olympics like you. In the future, these brands should post a statement voicing their opinion so at least the public knows they are engaged.

  4. Kyleigh Zmijewski says:

    It’s my belief both the Coke and McDonald’s brands should have considered taking the other approach. Yes, there is a great deal of economic impact and social impact that could affect their brands, but if they stood in unity with AT&T and other American sponsors, they could possibly change the minds of many Russian residents. Any press that would be broadcasted showing the unity between brands for an issue that is widely going in North America, would have brought awareness for both Russia and any country battling for LGBT community rights. To bring awareness to this social issue and at the Olympic Games which is nationally televised would have been great press even if there could be a possible backlash.

  5. Meenah Rincon says:

    I think that brands should first take a look at their company as a whole and decide where they stand on certain issues and never compromise their beliefs. Prime example: Chick-fil-A. They took a stance on this same issue; they were anti-gay marriage. In spite of the backlash, they stood by their belief. When people spoke out about the company and what the company believed in, they listened. They also responded to the backlash.

    In the case of Coke and McDonald’s, I can understand why they didn’t acknowledge the protestors. At the end of the day, it’s about the Olympics and the athletes, not about politics. I don’t think silence is the solution. They should have issued a statement or press release acknowledging the situation. The world is watching these two large companies and silence is not an option.

  6. Kaitlyn Carl says:

    Although brands such as Coke and McDonald’s missed out on what would have been a great publicity opportunity, I believe that they acted appropriately by avoiding the controversy altogether. As companies that do not fall within a political realm, Coke and McDonald’s are not required to give a statement or response on the gay rights issue occurring at the Olympics. However, although they could have used the opportunity to show that they are caring and socially aware companies, they chose to go the conservative route and allow for companies such as Google and AT&T to speak out. Now knowing that AT&T received such a positive response from the public for speaking out on gay rights, I believe that if Coke and McDonald’s could rewind, they would probably capitalize on the opportunity to share their support for gay rights at the Olympics.

  7. Zander Buel says:

    Since when do people think that international brands have their best interests at heart? Taking a stance one way or the other is bound to lead to negative press and backlash of some sort. Of course, a major brand like Coke put itself in the crossfire by sponsoring the Games, so silence is only dysfunctional PR. They should have already been prepared for this kind of controversy.

  8. Megan Miller says:

    I have been constantly fascinated by all the controversy surrounding the Olympics. However, it’s unfortunate that political issues and controversies are overshadowing the glory of the athletes and competition.

    In the case of the anti-gay propaganda and protests, I think it is important for the big name corporations and sponsors of the Olympics to acknowledge the controversy. If not, Coke and McDonald’s for example, could be viewed as ignorant for not being aware of the global issues that surround them. It was proven that AT&T has received more positive attention than the other brands after they spoke out against the Russian anti-gay laws. I think this forms a sense of trust and connection to their audience as opposed to Coke and McDonald’s who choose to “turn the other cheek” and avoid the issue as a whole.

    In public relations, we were taught to never say “no comment” in reference to any controversy or issue. It seems like Coke and McDonalds did just that and took the easy way out.

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