Putin’s Policies, Activism and Sponsorship: Fair Game?

By Jim Andrews Feb 10, 2014

Putin’s Policies, Activism and Sponsorship: Fair Game?

During an interview a few days ago with a reporter for The Motley Fool about sponsorship of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (You can read the article here), I was asked if it was fair that groups protesting Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” laws were targeting Olympic sponsors.

I had never really considered the issue in those terms before. Certainly those of us in the business have seen lots of this sort of thing before around high-profile events, and have discussed how to handle the fallout through public relations efforts, etc.

But is it fair?

To answer the question, it needs to be broken into two sets of questions.

First, is it fair to shine a spotlight on corporations that are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor an event that is promoting a country that recently passed blatantly discriminatory laws targeting LGBT people? Is it fair to ask them to use their influence to put pressure on that country’s leaders to rethink these laws that are in direct opposition to their corporate policies? Is it fair to protest outside their offices and stores, hijack their Twitter hashtags, start petition drives and otherwise use their sponsorship as a way to shine a spotlight on what is happening in Russia today?

Absolutely it is fair. And I believe most of the people who work for those sponsors would privately agree, despite the trouble it causes. This is the way the game is played and anyone who enters a sponsorship understands that these are the rules.

Big money, big companies and big events can’t help but attract attention of all kinds. IOC president Thomas Bach sounded extremely naïve last week when he urged government leaders to “please understand what our responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are. Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes.” Setting aside the fact that the athletes are doing just fine, this viewpoint just doesn’t reflect the way the world works. If Vladimir Putin gets to promote Russia “on the backs of the athletes,” than other world leaders get to say and do what they want in response. It’s all “fair.”

But back to the sponsors and the second set of questions:

Is it fair to insist that these sponsors should have pulled out of their sponsorship to protest last year’s passing of laws they say they don’t agree with? Is it fair to say that their sponsorship of the Sochi Games negates any positive steps they have taken to support LGBT rights? No.

We all know this is a big, complicated, messy world we live in; and it only gets more complicated and messier when you start talking about multinational corporations. While it is the role of activists to portray things as black or white and good vs. evil, and to insist that people and businesses just “do the right thing,” it’s not that simple.

It’s unrealistic—and yes, unfair—to expect sponsors to cost themselves, their employees and their shareholders untold millions of dollars to try to dismantle part of a long-term investment in worldwide Olympic sponsorship.

By all means, pressure must be kept on big companies to use their influence for good. I think TOP sponsors—and many other multinationals--could and should do more to push not just Russia, but any country that violates basic human rights to get on the right side of history. They should make it loud and clear to their partners at the IOC that such issues must be a high priority in the selection of future Olympic cities.

That’s only fair.


International Olympics Sochi 2014 Backlash


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Jim Andrews

About the Author

A 30-year sponsorship industry veteran, Jim is responsible for developing and sharing thought-leadership content based on ESP Properties’ groundbreaking work in the areas of sponsorship strategy, valuation, measurement, digital content, data-driven marketing and fan engagement.

In addition to identifying key trends and delivering his unique insights into the critical issues facing rightsholders and their commercial partners, Jim is the chairman of the Annual Sponsorship Conference, responsible for the program and speakers, as well as hosting and delivering the event’s opening address. He also is responsible for the company’s annual report and forecast of overall sponsorship spending, as well as its compilation of biggest spending companies and annual industry surveys.

A frequent media commentator and guest, Jim has been a featured speaker at hundreds of sports, entertainment and marketing conferences around the world.



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