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Lessons from backlash against Nike's law enforcement day

Public relations and marketing experts weigh in on Nike's attempt to show respect to police officers while ignoring current public sentiment.

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    A Nike logo is seen on a jacket in the Nike store in Santa Monica, California, in this 2013 file photo.
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When Nike chose to stick with its second annual Law Enforcement Appreciation Day plans on May 13, offering a discount to any officer who flashed a badge as part of National Police Week, consumers took to social media to protest.

The act of giving a police officer a free cup of coffee was acceptable “Americana” until use of deadly force by officers on unarmed citizens polarized consumers, says Dan Baum, CEO of DBC public relations and social media firm, of Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles in an interview with the Monitor.

According to the National Police Week website, “In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation which designated May 15th as Peace Officers Memorial Day and the week in which that date falls as Police Week.”

“This is why social listening is so important for major brands because it used to be that brands and brand managers could only rely on focus groups to tell them the mood of the nation,” Mr. Baum says. “Today, some free or cheap software, you can listen in to the entire conversation and see trends. So this [social friction over law enforcement] is a trend that I think, with 20/20 hindsight, they should have seen coming. Nike should have seen this boiling issue.”

After the use of deadly force by officers in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other incidents in recent months, is the trending hashtags #BoycottNike.

Do businesses really have anything to fear from discontented social media users? According to a 2012 post headlined “Social Media is Creating Bad Customers” by Jeff Wilson, Partner/Chief Customer Experience Designer at Sensei Marketing, businesses have good reason to pay attention to trending sentiments on social media.

In the post, Mr. Wilson states that social media empowers bad behavior because there is no guilt on the part of the user, mob rules apply, there is relative anonymity, and little or no accountability.

A case in point is the recent Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign which was designed to open a meaningful dialogue between baristas and customers but was hijacked on social media and driven into the ground. Before that, it was the #McDStories hijacking, when customers shared negative stories about McDonald's instead of the intended positivity.

Baum says, “At the same time, you’ve got to have some sympathy for Nike here, because they’re kinda like the Dunkin Donut man. All of a sudden it’s not cool to give cops a discount."

“This has been almost a piece of Americana because if you’ve got a store on the corner and the police officer stops by you give him a cup of coffee. Why? Because you want that police officer to stop by your store, make it safer and to support the community," he adds.

Baum says that perhaps the better choice for Nike to have made would have been to either back out of the discount day for law enforcement or to have done it without any fanfare at all.

“So this is really a complicated issue and really the first time on a national level the tension has gotten to the point where supporting the police can lead to a backlash. It’s a very interesting new thing.”

Calling the backlash against businesses that either celebrate law enforcement or have ties to charities run by law enforcement “a tidal shift that corporate America needs to adjust to,” Baum adds, “A lot of brands are going to be paying attention to this calling their PR departments and being careful to adjust accordingly.”

However, Mary Long, founder of Digital Media Ghost – a ghostwriting and professional reputation consultancy firm based in New Orleans, says in an interview that big companies like Nike, “have very sophisticated social listening tools and should not back away from issues just because the loudest voices they hear on social media lean left."

“I think [Nike is] looking at should they not give this to police officers as they did last year,” Ms. Long says. “Assuming their whole audience hates cops, that’s a pretty outrageous way to look at it, I think. I don’t know that that really makes a lot of sense.”

Long adds that, “This is [Nike’s] second year doing [the law enforcement discount]. It’s not like they just came up with it to make some kind of political statement.”

“The other way to look at it is [if] Nike didn’t do this again this year after doing it last year aren’t they making that statement that all cops are bad? To not do it, by omissions, is offending in the opposite direction.”

Baum adds, “This is what you call a no-win situation.  It’s a very tough call, but ultimately a brand is beholden to its customers. So I think a smaller, more nimble brand would have probably pulled out. But when you’re a big brand, you have to keep sharp and keep thinking small and nimble. Ultimately the customer is the boss, right?”

Long says that the way Nike could go at this stage is to, “Respond once. Respond briefly. Apologize if necessary and don’t debate. Do not get defensive and argue back with people because that proves nothing.”  However, she would advise ignoring it.

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