As is often the case with international sporting events, however, the laws or behavior of the host country have raised serious concerns. This time, it's a new law in Russia that outlaws spreading "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations." There is another new law that can send you to jail for three years for "offending religious feelings." In effect, you can be arrested in Russia for appearing in public with your gay partner, giving a public display of affection, wearing a rainbow flag pin, or simply speaking your mind on this issue. President Obama criticized the law recently on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
My longtime friend John Aravosis has been all over this issue for some time now. He's pointed out that the Russian Sports Minister has said athletes who violate this law will be arrested and he's helped lead an effective PR campaign against Russian brands in response. He's documented violence against gay people in Russia since the law was passed and he's highlighted the plight of gay olympic athletes in the Games next year.
But here's the thing - athletes are actually a small minority of the people who go to the Olympic Games in an official capacity. They're vastly outnumbered by staff, media, and sponsor representatives. Prominent athletes such as Johnny Weir are actually protected by their celebrity. He's not going to be carried away in handcuffs for kissing his partner after winning a medal.
But that young, unknown foreigner working in a sponsor's hospitality booth might. And that arrest may be captured on a cell phone video, and shared worldwide. And that person's employer will have a lot of difficult questions to answer.
Now that the Russian law is getting more attention and the Russian Sports Minister's comments are on the record, any "packaged dairy products" company that partners with the Games will clearly be making a judgement call on the merits of brand exposure versus human rights. Good luck with that.
The companies that have already announced partnerships with the 2014 Games may have a little bit of an "out" from a reputation perspective - they can say they're already locked into an agreement, that they oppose the law, they have a track record on human rights, and so on. But even they will have to provide employees with some information or messaging that will run counter to their professed values.
People who attend the Olympics on behalf of a sponsor will get the typical "here's how you stay safe in a foreign country" handbook and the "you're here to represent the brand, not make a political statement" lecture. But companies are going to have to tell their employees who work at the Games things like "if you're gay, please be discreet." They will have to advise against the kinds of words and actions that straight people take for granted. They may even suggest that gay employees not take part. That's not going to sit well with employees or many consumers.
If a sponsor's employee is arrested under the new law, it's going to create a new, unique set of challenges for that company. There's an obvious and important need to follow the laws of the countries where you operate. But legal compliance and reputation defense aren't always aligned. So here are some things companies can do ahead of time to mitigate a crisis:
- Review company anti-discrimination policies and other rules that affect GLBT employees. If you're leaving someone out, you better have a good reason for it. John Aravosis and his colleagues will be taking a look, and he will be telling your customers.
- Have your code of conduct for the Games reviewed by general counsel AND by your communications staff. These internal messages are bound to get noticed by people outside the company. Make sure you're not saying anything that could get misconstrued.
- Let your employees and customers voice their concerns. Have a personal presence in the company and online to make sure people know who you are and that you care. Give direct, specific and personalized answers to direct, specific and personalized questions.
- Most importantly, BUILD RELATIONSHIPS NOW. Know the legal system in Russia, the security apparatus for the Games, the appropriate staff at the relevant embassies and consulates. Make sure if there's a legal issue you're ready to deal with it. Furthermore, get to know the leading voices in the mainstream, GLBT, and digital media on these issues. Ask to talk with them to share what you're about. Don't introduce yourself to an opinion leader by asking for something or trying to explain yourself.
Right now is the time to act. Not next year. Right now.