New Balance offers wishy-washy response to neo-Nazis’ stamp of approval

Consumers threatened to boycott the brand after one exec’s pro-Trump stance prompted praise from a white supremacist. Here’s what went wrong—and how it could have gone differently.

After being dubbed, “The official shoes of white people,” New Balance execs say they want to be clear…sort of.

“The organization does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form. One of our officials was recently asked to comment on a trade policy that was taken out of context.” the Massachusetts-based sneaker manufacturer says.

What, exactly, was “taken out of context”?

Here’s the gist, From Bloomberg:

Days after the shoe company drew ire for praising the trade policies of President-elect Donald Trump, a neo-Nazi blogger declared his support for New Balance footwear, leaving the privately held company desperate to distance itself from hate groups.

The crisis began last week when a spokesman for New Balance, which opposed a White House-backed trade deal Trump has railed against, told a reporter that under Trump, “We feel things are going to move in the right direction.” Customers lashed out, sharing photos and videos on social media of New Balance sneakers in trash cans, in toilets, and set ablaze.

But then the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, published a post that said New Balance was “making a gesture to support white people and to support U.S. manufacturing.”

According to Mashable, here’s what was misconstrued by consumers—and led to backlash online:

On Twitter last week, Wall Street Journal reporter Sara Germano quoted a New Balance spokesperson as saying Barack Obama had “turned a deaf ear” to the company as an American manufacturer.

Germano clarified in a later tweet that the comment specifically regarded the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership bill, a free trade agreement promoted by Obama but one Trump has said he’ll block. Blocking the partnership, ostensibly, will help American manufacturers such as New Balance.

Many took the New Balance spokesperson’s comment as a full-on endorsement for Trump.

Here’s the rest of the response from New Balance. It was issued almost immediately after the Neo-Nazi blogger’s post gained traction:

As a 110-year-old company with five factories in the U.S. and thousands of employees worldwide from all races, genders, culture, and sexual orientations, New Balance is a values-driven organization and culture that believes in humanity, integrity, community and mutual respect for people around the world. We have been and always will be committed to manufacturing in the United States.

The PR side of things—damage control

Although New Balance offered a swift response, many criticized the brand for taking too soft a stance on the (assumed) unwelcome endorsement.

GQ’s Jake Woolf writes:

Why not just say, “We do not want the endorsement of Neo-Nazis and if you are a Neo-Nazi please stop wearing our shoes.” Is it really that hard to plain and simple condemn Neo-Nazis? This seems to be an attempt to not ostracize any customers or even, yes, Trump himself.

To protect your brand’s image online, Twitter—and other fast-paced social media channels—can be a blessing and a curse.

MFD Communications’ Melissa F. Daly says New Balance’s response was a self-inflicted PR wound and could have been avoided.

She adds:

New Balance tried to be amusing with its play on words and failed to consider how their word choices would be interpreted by a broader audience. Whether you are publicly weighing in on a sensitive political issue, or sending an internal communication to employees, it’s important to take a step back and consider what may be heard in a way that you did not intend. To avoid this, step away from your working group to get honest feedback.

New Balance had a good story to tell and they missed the mark. Now, their missteps are the story that everyone is paying attention to.

Manzer Communications founder, Dave Manzer, weighs in on the importance of spokesperson training in PR:

As a general rule, companies that verbalize support for a particular candidate’s policies, particularly one as controversial as Trump, do so at the risk of their reputation. A decision to take such a position should be done with its customers’ core values in mind. New Balance’s crisis should be a wake-up call for many companies to revisit their spokesperson training in order to ensure they stay on brand message and avoid mindless gaffes that can have potentially damaging effects to a company’s brand and bottom-line.

What crisis tactics do you think New Balance execs should have used, Ragan readers?

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