What happens when the KKK comes out in support of a brand? New Balance shoes recently found itself in such a dilemma. How did it happen? New Balance, who manufacturers their shoes in the United States and the United Kingdom came out in support of Donald Trump during the election in response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, told the Wall Street Journal.
The Trans-Pacific partnership obviously helps brands who manufacturer their shoes in foreign countries and import them into the U.S. market. Trump whom has campaigned against such partnerships and who believes that trade restrictions will bolster U.S. jobs and the economy would likely benefit companies like New Balance against their competitors.
Just Barron Trump in New Balance pic.twitter.com/J7w86s67J5— Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) November 18, 2016
It all makes a lot of sense until neo-Nazi and white supremacist, Andrew Anglin announced that New Balance was the "official shoes of white people" and suggests that New Balance shoes should be a part of the official uniform of the KKK.
New Balance responded:
So now I propose to you, from a crisis communications stand point, is this enough? In my opinion no.
Go to New Balance's website and you'll see nothing but text and products on the main page. Finding actual models requires an image search of their domain. There you will see that New Balance does use numerous multi-racial models for their sports apparel. So why isn't this the first thing a person sees on the website? As un-politically correct as it may be to suggest forced diversity, why isn't there an ethnically diverse cover-page image on the homepage for everyone to see when they hear of this story (now reported on NPR, CBS and the Washington Times) and visit the website? Why are you not changing the narrative?
There are some more questions too. Sponsorship with pro snowboarders and skateboarders appear to be mostly ethnically white and regardless of intent, it's going to be important for New Balance to reexamine the lens by which the company is viewed going forward.
Considering this crisis has been in play for almost two weeks and there has been very little of a response from the company, it might suggest there was little to no crisis planning in advance. The fact that it has taken this long for someone to upload an image to the website and come up with a cliche of a subtitle ("A shoe of many colors!") that embodies diversity suggests they're taking the wait-and-see approach, which in my opinion is akin to doing nothing but waiting for the fire to burn out and hoping it doesn't burn the house down with it.
This is one of those cases where you must act quickly, come out in front, and make a clear strong message about what your company believes. Words aren't enough, it's actions that need to take place. That VP needs to come out and speak to the media with more than just tweets. Consumers now demand a meaningful statement of regret and an apology that his American company has become the face of anti-American values of inclusion and diversity. That's just day one.
How out of control is this? Reebok is offering free shoes to some people who choose to burn their New Balance shoes. Can it get any worse? Go to Twitter and find Photo-shopped New Balance shoes with everything from swastikas to black shoes that have the racial expletives on them. Yet the official New Balance twitter account still has a pair of shoes dangling as their cover picture with no meaningful message.
Perhaps this is one of the best examples of when you don't get out in front of the crisis, you can't own the message. Right now, the KKK and angry shoes lovers everywhere are controlling the New Balance narrative. The question is when will their public relations department decide to take it back?