A tale of two crises – what communicators can learn from Adidas and Nike

case studies communication crisis communications media relations public relations social media
Nike and Adidas crisis communications

The top two global sportswear brands – Adidas and Nike – have both taken a reputational hit from scandalous comments and social media posts by high-profile celebrity partners. The circumstances were parallel, but the way each company responded to its crisis had profound implications for damage limitation. An analysis of the coverage data reveals some important lessons for communicators everywhere about the interaction between corporate culture and the effectiveness of crisis response.

The headaches for Adidas came from Ye (Kanye West) who criticised the brand and went on to make anti-semitic comments in the media that caused social media uproar. Adidas eventually cancelled its partnership with Ye, but only after weeks of speculation during which time more than 4,000 articles were published, according to data from Newswhip. These articles drove millions of engagements, many of which criticized Adidas for not acting more decisively.

Meanwhile Nike was much quicker to sever its partnership with basketball star Kyle Irving after he tweeted a link to a video promoting anti-semitic messages. That scandal generated less than half as many articles and a tiny fraction of the number of engagements in social media. Importantly, most of the coverage was about the relationship ending rather than criticism of indecision or continuing the partnership.

The importance of decisive action and rapid crisis communication in containing reputational damage is essential best practice – a point that’s intuitively clear enough to be a no-brainer for corporate communicators, including the teams at Adidas and Nike. The really interesting questions are why companies acted so differently, and how we can learn from the dynamics that played out. What was it about these companies’ corporate culture and communication systems that insulated Nike from trouble but landed Adidas in hot water?

The 2023 movie “Air” memorably depicts the Adidas boardroom as stiff, traditional and bound up with politics and linear decision making – in stark contrast to the freewheeling anarchic setup at Nike. Setting aside the obvious limitations of Jordan-era pop culture stereotypes, it’s clear from current-day experience that corporate culture and management dynamics remain a defining factor in the effectiveness of crisis communication response. It’s the mandate of an empowered communication function to steer decision making culture in the Nike direction.

The “how” part is about tools and systems. Even a company blessed with decisive, reputation-aware management and corporate culture needs to have all of its operational ducks in a row in order to be able to recognise and escalate an emerging crisis and execute a strong communication response. New artificial intelligence (AI) tools offer huge potential for real-time monitoring the communication landscape, predicting which events are likely to have viral crisis impact, and generating content in complex situations – albeit with their own set of reputational risks attached.

It's worth taking a look at the Newswhip roundup of data and analysis from the last year’s coverage dynamics from corporate crises for insights into how corporate behaviour and communication effectiveness plays out in the reputational landscape.

ISOC course links

This content relates to the following short courses at the International School of Communications, available live online and also face-to-face at our training centres in London and Dubai:

Crisis Communication Programme

Crisis Communication Strategy and Management

Crisis Media Training

Handling the Media in a Crisis

Social Media Crisis Management

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