Corporate sponsors of the Olympics do right to focus on the sport and not the politics, says Mallen Baker

The Olympic games represent a huge global ideal – all nations across the world burying their differences to compete in a wide range of sporting endeavours. You would think that sponsoring such an operation would be nothing other than a prestigious opportunity.

But as we’ve seen once again with the winter Olympics in Sochi, it’s not an activity for the faint-hearted.

Here’s the dilemma. Even if all the nations around the world can be persuaded to hide their differences for the event, the controversies don’t go away. For political campaigners of all persuasions, the games are an opportunity to press their point and get it more publicity and profile.

Any corporate sponsor can get caught up in this. Indeed, it has now become de rigueur that they will, on recent evidence.

So, for instance, at some point somebody decided that the statements from Vladimir Putin,  the Russian president, about gay people meant that not only was this winter Olympics going to be defined by that issue, but also that the main global sponsors should – as part of the responsibility of their position – use their sponsorship platform to address LGBT rights.

From the sponsors’ point of view, this is plain wrong. They don’t sponsor a global sporting event to make political statements – even ones that they might agree with – in aggressive defiance of the host state. They sponsor sport as a universal, healing, bridge-building global activity – they would not then undermine that with divisive partisan point-scoring.

And the focus is meant to be on the athletes: the people who devote their lives day in, day out to training for these occasions. It is about them and their achievements.

But, of course, there are consequences of keeping quiet. An analysis of social media buzz around the 2012 Olympics in the UK showed the vast majority of mentions of sponsors to be negative, due to the sponsors’ perceived lack of action on promoting the LGBT cause.

For instance, only 2% of the Twitter chatter about Coca-Cola in relation to the London Olympics was positive. Big sponsorship and social media fail – at least that’s the conclusion of the social media commentators.

It’s right that LGBT campaigners have attacked Russia’s policies, which are truly awful, and there’s no doubt they have made better use than most of the games as a platform to do this.

Give sport a chance

But it’s also right that the corporate sponsors of the games focus on what they’re sponsoring – the global sporting endeavour – and don’t allow the media coverage in some countries, and the opinions of campaigners, to push them off course.

By their nature, the Olympics will always have teams competing from countries that someone thinks are reprehensible. They will always provide a target.

Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and the rest should support LGBT rights by making sure they have a diverse and non-discriminatory workforce. A company might decide, like Body Shop, to establish itself as a niche ethical company by campaigning for things it believes in – we’ll always like those sorts of companies. But you don’t have to do that as a socially responsible global company.

Of course, attention was focused on the sponsors particularly this time because some companies – not all sponsors of the games – did decide to actively make a statement. So, for instance, Google displayed an Olympics icon that was rainbow coloured with a statement about non-discrimination underneath (which was also on the site). And the corporate sponsors of the US Olympic team were certainly very vocal, which got them lots of plaudits.

But there is a difference between non-sponsors and US team sponsors making noise to the applause of their home audience, and the global brands investing in the ideal of the global games.

And, as I suspect the thick-skinned serial Olympics sponsors know from their own research, the campaigning noise and condemnation do less harm to them than our own social media commentators think.

For instance, in the UK – where the sponsors did little or no promotion of their link with the games – they may have reaped negative Twitter comments from the actively engaged campaigners. But how representative or influential is this really?

Worldwide, only 1% of global chatter was critical of sponsor Visa’s refusal to take up the platform of LGBT issues, and less than 2% was critical of McDonald’s.

The issue of the day that as seen through one particular lens is actually not how many others are seeing it. That’s the joy of diversity, isn’t it?

Mallen Baker is a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation and managing director of Daisy Wheel Interactive.

corporate sponsors  olympics  reputation  Russia  Sochi  sponsorship  sports 

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