The shirts that Nike pulled from its stores last week because they had the phrase “Boston massacre” across the front didn’t have anything to do with the April 15 bombing that killed three people and injured dozens more. They didn’t even have anything to do with any event of the past 30 years.
The shirts were a nod toward a 1978 late-season New York Yankees sweep of the Boston Red Sox, and more generally, the longstanding rivalry between those teams. (The original Boston Massacre involved the killing of five colonists by British regulars in 1770.) The visual of the T-shirt, on which red, blood-like splotches dot the word “Boston,” could be jarring to many shoppers still in shock from the carnage at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
That’s why Nike, before complaints could build into a crescendo of bad PR, had the shirts removed from stores.
Crisis communications experts say the move was a great example of smart crisis prevention.
“We conducted this process as quickly as possible and are confident the product has been removed from distribution,” Nike spokeswoman Mary Remuzzi told the Associated Press.
The company’s action was so fast that virtually all the reporting about the shirts focused on Nike’s decision to remove them, not their out-of-context message. Only a handful of reports indicated the removal may have been the result of customer complaints, an assertion Nike never confirmed. Most reports implied Nike removed the shirts on its own.
A few tweets about the shirts went out over the weekend. One from “The Late Show with David Letterman” writer Eric Stangel mentioned stores were removing the shirts.
Jonathan Hemus, director of Insignia Communications, says Nike proved that it has an effective crisis prevention plan in place, upon which it can act with great speed.
“While it would have been hard for anyone to criticize the company for T-shirts which were perfectly acceptable ahead of the bombing, its ability to recognize a potential issue and deal with it decisively prevented any possible damage or offense,” he says.
Robert Holland of Holland Communication Solutions adds that Nike almost certainly has a huge number of products for sale, so its quick decision to remove the shirts “shows a pretty incredible foresight on the part of Nike.”
Lessons for brands
Tripp Frohlichstein of MediaMasters Training says that degree of awareness is something every brand should strive to have.
“Be aware of what you offer, be it a product or service, and understand how those might be perceived after a crisis,” he says.
Holland adds that Nike’s candor about removing the shirts and why it was doing so was also instructive.
“Customers are willing to give brands the benefit of the doubt when the brands communicate in a straightforward way around issues like this,” he says. “It’s when customers perceive a lack of sensitivity and, worse, a defensiveness or glossing-over that brands get in trouble.”
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management says brands should take a cue from Nike in another way.
“This is clear evidence that Nike has what so many consumer product companies lack: a strong, interactive connection between its marketing and PR functions,” he says.
Gerald Baron, principal at Agincourt Strategies, says Nike could have explained that the shirts were produced well before the bombings and referenced a baseball series played 35 years ago. Instead, the company took the shirts off the racks, because the decision-makers knew it would become a black eye for the company.
“We are hypersensitive about insensitivity and looking for evidence of it all over the place,” he says. “With 7 billion people on the globe, it’s not difficult to find someone offended about something all the time, but the media and digital mob tend to like to amplify any evidence of offense.”
Frohlichstein adds that a big Nike push to the media to amplify the story—the company issued statements but didn’t send out a release about its decision—might even have backfired.
“People might accuse them of taking advantage of the bombing tragedy by trying to show how good they are, as opposed to pulling the shirts simply because it was the right thing to do,” he says.