By Susan McPherson and Laura Clise
With the Olympics underway, the world is watching as thousands of athletes from more than 80 countries compete in Sochi, Russia for the pinnacle of international sporting competition. Despite the understandable excitement and anticipation, the games have been somewhat tainted by Russia’s passage last summer of anti-gay legislation.
The controversy has been sustained by objections from athletes, activists, governments and citizens from around the world — resulting in criticism of the Putin regime, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and corporate sponsors. As the world and public opinion continue to move toward equality, the implications present an evolving challenge for corporate sponsors to determine their responsibility and the appropriate course of action regarding the alignment of internal commitments to diversity with their role as Olympic sponsor.
As Sochi Olympic sponsors, Coca-Cola and McDonalds have experienced criticism over the past several months, as backlash against the anti-LGBT laws in Russia and frustration with the IOC have brought activists and consumers to their physical and cyber doorsteps. With citizen demonstrations, calls for product boycotts and hashtag hijacking, sponsors are put in the position to defend rather than celebrate their association with the Olympic Games.
Organized campaigns such as Principle 6 (launched by Athlete Ally, All Out and American Apparel) have given athletes, government representatives and citizens a platform for advocacy regarding LGBT equality ahead of and during the Olympics. Named after the anti-discrimination principle of the Olympic charter, the campaign allows supporters to express support for equality without running afoul of either Russian law or Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which prohibits political speech at the games. The campaign includes nearly 100 Olympians and professional athletes, plus hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world who are speaking out in support of equality and non-discrimination in Russia.
While Principle 6 does not explicitly target corporate sponsors, it underscores the shifting tide of public opinion regarding LGBT equality. In light of this shift and the experience to date of existing Olympic sponsors, current sponsors of major international sporting events and brands in general would be well served to take note. Particularly, when aligned with a platform like the Olympics, brands need to determine how to take internal commitments to LGBT equality and diversity into consideration when operating and engaging on the international stage.
As discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation becomes no longer accepted, companies should recognize the continued shift in consumer values as an opportunity to affirm equality and non-discrimination across geographic boundaries. This is especially salient for sporting events. At its essence, sport is the domain where athletic competition should neutralize any bias or discrimination. The growth and reach of organizations like Athlete Ally reflect that support for LGBT equality in sports continues to grow. From advocates like Gold Medalists Megan Rapinoe, Caryn Davies and Seth Wescott, to Sochi-competitor Belle Brockoff, to former NFL players Wade Davis, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, LGBT athletes and allies are speaking out for equality and inclusion.
Last week, the CEOs of the Sochi Olympics sponsors received a letter from 40 LGBT and human rights advocacy organizations requesting that they raise their voices in opposition to Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and/or promote equality through available marketing channels. While none have taken a direct stand to date, telecommunications giant, AT&T has become the first U.S. company with Olympic ties to speak out, writing via its Consumer Blog:
“We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.”
So far, only two sponsors—Chobani and DeVry University—have followed AT&T’s lead. Most recently, top NFL prospect, Michael Sam came out to the world as an openly gay man, putting him on the path to potentially becoming the first openly gay player in the league. While athletes, a few franchises and the NFL have articulated their support, through his courage and authenticity, Michael is undoubtedly entering uncharted territory. At the same time, assuming he is drafted, he presents an interesting opportunity for potential sponsors.
As the fight for LGBT equality continues, along with efforts to end homophobia and transphobia, the companies and brands that support sporting events, teams and athletes will need to decide where they stand. And as social media grows increasingly pervasive, the pressure placed on these companies to respond to the conversation will only continue to mount. While today, general statements regarding a corporate commitment to diversity may placate some critics, companies need to prepare for growing expectations that corporations join athletes, government leaders, and civil society organizations in unequivocally condemning discrimination against the LGBT community. Rather than a PR crisis, corporate sponsors should see this controversy as an opportunity to affirm their espoused values and take a bold stance on human rights.
Laura Clise is the Director of External Communications & Corporate Citizenship at AREVA and an Aspen Institute First Mover Fellow. She is a proud alumna of Carleton College and the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and serves on the Steering Committee for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions Business Environmental Leadership Council and on the Net Impact Corporate Advisory Council.
Susan McPherson is a serial connector, passionate cause marketer, angel investor and corporate responsibility expert. Recently, she launched McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focusing on the intersection between brands and social good, providing storytelling, partnership creation and visibility to corporations, NGOs and social enterprises. She founded and hosts the bi-weekly #CSRChat on Twitter and serves on the boards of PVBLIC Foundation, Bpeace and Girl Rising.