Another brand is being roasted for not taking a smart stand

Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Matt Purdue, one of my Peppercomm colleagues who started his career as a sports journalist yet still can’t win our fantasy football league….

When will brands finally realize that standing in the middle of the road on controversial issues of the day is only going to get them run over? And maybe even run over by the most powerful influencer on Earth.

Our latest victim is ESPN, which is being blindsided for doing…well…nothing really. In the midst of the NFL’s bubbling anthem controversy, an ESPN executive recently stated that the network was sticking to its longtime policy of not broadcasting the anthem before games. In fact, most networks don’t broadcast the anthem unless it’s a special occasion.

Our president, however, has chosen to ignore this reality (as he is often wont to do). Last night, President Trump blasted ESPN at a rally. “It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they’ve decided that they just won’t broadcast when they play the national anthem,” Trump said. “We don’t like that.”

As I’m writing this, ESPN has not responded — and that’s a huge mistake. Love him or hate him, Trump has a huge following. His approval rating among Republicans is 87 percent! If you don’t believe the power he wields, check out the exploding #BoycottESPN on Twitter. ESPN staying silent is tantamount to condoning Trump’s stance.

However, ESPN ’s biggest flub occurred on August 17, when new network president Jimmy Pitaro simply restated the current anthem policy. “We generally have not broadcasted the anthem and I don’t think that will change this year.”

He added: “It’s not our job to cover politics, purely, but we’ll cover the intersection of sports and politics.”

It’s not ESPN’s job to cover politics? Excuse me? It’s 2018, and we’re living in the most polarized political climate since before the Civil War in the 1850s. ESPN and every brand must realize that it’s at risk of running into a political firestorm at any time, 24/7/365.

So every brand must be prepared to take a smart stand based on what’s best for its stakeholders and its business. In a perfect world, ESPN would respond just like Texas senate candidate Beto O’Rourke did when he was asked if he thinks NFL players kneeling during the anthem is “disrespectful.”

But this is far from a perfect world. In reality, ESPN has two choices: 1) Stand firm on not airing the anthem because our “beautiful, beautiful” national hymn has become a political hot potato; or 2) commit to airing the anthem before every game to bring viewers real-time reporting of how players and fans are reacting during the song. They still have an opportunity to take a stand, but will they?

Instead, ESPN is sitting in the middle of the road. And now it’s getting run over.

4 thoughts on “Another brand is being roasted for not taking a smart stand

  1. This is a great post, Matt. It might be good for ESPN to take a stand. Or not. To me, it’s a “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t” scenario. I know fence-straddling by Corporate America isn’t considered smart marketing in 2018. But I also think the reality is that most NFL fans just want to watch the game.

    Beto O’Rourke’s response is brilliant – for Beto O’Rourke. I suspect ESPN’s attitude is that so many other media outlets — including corporate brethren ABC News — will be quite focused on the racially-charged anthem feud this fall. They believe it isn’t in their best interests to add to it. So ESPN thinks they’re smart by playing it safe. But yes, they lose their media mojo by not having critical analysis for this important juncture of sports, politics, race, class & patriotism. I know that Roone Arledge would have figured out an intelligent way for the ABC Sports team take it on 40-50 years ago.

    As for Trump demonizing ESPN to his base, I hope they’re not worrying about it like Chicken Little. The list of organizations and people that Trump has to lash out at grows by the minute. That includes those who were so-called “friends.” Who can keep track any more?