Ye and Irving Incidents Emphasize the Importance of Timing in PR Crisis

There are several aspects of timing that influence PR incidents/crises. 

First, when a PR crisis occurs simultaneously with a huge story, the crisis may get pushed off page 1. The FTX fiasco got media coverage, yet it was minuscule compared with the US midterm elections, whose outcome remains in doubt still, days after American voted Nov. 8.

Timing also can influence coverage of incidents/crises in another way, as reaction to the antisemitic posts and public utterances of singer and fashion designer Ye (formerly Kanye West) and athlete Kyrie Irving demonstrate.  

For example, at press time, an  apparent mistake spurred coverage of a PR incident that might have barely pierced global headlines at other times. 

Yet with the Ye and Irving stories fresh, and a record high of hate against Jews in 2021 and the story’s geography, journalists connected events and a larger item was born. 

The item had KFC Germany apologizing for promoting cheesy chicken as a Nov. 9 treat. That day in 1938, known in Germany as Kristallnacht (Night of the Shattered Glass), is memorialized there as the Holocaust’s start. 

KFC Germany’s app sent users a text Nov. 9, 2022: “It’s Memorial Day for Kristallnacht! Treat yourself with more tender cheese on your crispy chicken. Now at KFCheese!”

Again, timing is a factor: KFC rescinded the text one hour after sending it. 

In a press statement, KFC said a “semi-automated content creation process linked to calendars that include national observances” was the culprit. 

The text “contained an obviously unplanned, insensitive and unacceptable message and for this we sincerely apologize….”

While that awful miscue apparently was unintended, a pair of mega-influencers’ intentional antisemitic posts and statements. The two incidents: 

• German sportswear company Adidas dissolved its lucrative, 9-year relationship with Ye Oct. 25 and 

• Irving, a star player with the Brooklyn Nets, a National Basketball Association (NBA) team, was suspended a minimum of five games Nov. 4. 

Was a PR crisis averted? It seems clear Ye and Irving did little to avert PR incidents for their brands. In fact, they fomented them. 

For example, when confronted, Ye doubled down, boasting in an Oct. 16 video that Adidas could not drop him for making antisemitic comments. 

Similarly, Irving avoided apologizing initially, arguing free speech protected his antisemitic post. 

On the other hand, Irving later apologized, ahead of his suspensions Nov 3.

Moreover, Irving says he’ll educate himself about hate, though Ye has refused to do so. Indeed, in a joint statement Nov. 2, Irving, the Nets, the NBA and the Anti-Defamation League said the player and the Nets will each donate $500,000 to anti-hate groups.

Instead, this feature will concentrate on the crisis aversion efforts of Adidas and the NBA. 


Act Wisely and Now!

A company whose history includes a Nazi past, Adidas said Oct. 6 it put Ye’s deal “under review. 

19 days later it ended arguably its most lucrative partnership, representing an estimated 8-10% of company annual revenue, or $2 billion, and a whopping 40% of profit.   

In addition, apparently making the decision more difficult were Adidas’s struggles well before dropping Ye.

For PR crisis pro Evan Nierman, founder/CEO, Red Banyan, Adidas averted a crisis, despite spending more than two weeks reviewing Ye. Again, timing. 

“People won’t remember” how long it took Adidas “to drop Ye. They’re going to remember that Adidas dropped him, they did the right thing…they took a stand,” Nierman says. 

He disputes the notion that Adidas moved too slowly. “Anyone in business understands that before you potentially break off contracts worth...billions…you need to get it right. And that means consulting lawyers…” 

Ye not only lent his name to Adidas, he designed items and apparently had equity. Those factors may have added to the review’s length. 

Nierman acknowledges he’s arguing against society’s instantaneous nature. “I can get any food I want delivered to my desk in minutes,” he says. Yet instant gratification conflicts with sound handling of PR crises, he submits. 

“People want you to act wisely” in a PR crisis “and…to do it right away. It’s not necessarily realistic.” Moving too fast can prompt mistakes, worsening the situation. “That’s the last thing you want to do in a [PR] crisis,” he adds. 

On the other hand, Nierman says timing remains a factor in PR crises. A 60-day review of Ye, for instance, would not work for him. “It shouldn’t take lawyers 60 days to review documents,” he says.  


An Opposing View

The 19-day review was too long for Lilia Dashevsky, VP, public affairs practice, Clyde Group. Yet the review’s duration isn’t necessarily the most vital element. 

Instead, she blames Adidas for apparently failing to monitor its top influencer. Had Adidas followed Ye’s comments and behavior, its review might have ended much quicker, Dashevsky argues. 

Certainly, Ye has said and posted controversial things prior to his early October antisemitic rant.  

For instance, in 2018 Ye said slavery seemed “like a choice.” George Floyd died of an overdose, Ye argued last month. Also last month, Ye sported a #WhiteLivesMatter shirt at a Paris Fashion Week event. 

In addition, when Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted said he was stepping down, Ye posted on  Instagram a fake story about the executive’s death. He’s blasted Adidas and other partners often, alleging mistreatment. In September, Ye said he’d end all his corporate deals. 

Ye’s checkered history and how it could damage Adidas’s reputation “seem to have been glazed over,” Dashevsky says. 

However, like Nierman, she agrees Adidas eventually acted correctly, ending its deal with Ye four years early. The loss of revenue will “hurt Adidas in the short term, yet long term it’s the right move…especially at a time when consumers expect more of companies…and ESG is a factor,” she says. Most people won’t stop buying Adidas products over this incident, Dashevsky says.

Similarly, Dashevsky’s Clyde colleague, SVP Jenny Wang, notes companies like Spotify “continue to play” Ye’s music “and promote him” for revenue reasons. And while Wang, like Nierman, is not a fan of cancel culture, she believes “sometimes, [cancellation] is warranted.” Adidas’s response, which she believes was too slow, “was a money thing…yet had [Adidas] not let him go, it would have been far worse” eventually. 


Nets Fare Better than the NBA

As we noted above, the similarities between the Ye and Irving situations are clear. For instance, the NBA was criticized for failing to condemn Irving quickly. And like Ye, Irving’s past was checkered, including his social media support for controversial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and flat-Earth theories. 

On the other hand, the Nets moved relatively quickly. An Oct. 28 statement blasted Irving. A day later, the NBA condemned prejudice, though never mentioned Irving. The league later deleted its weak response. 

Brooklyn suspended Irving Nov. 3. A few days later Brooklyn outlined 6 things he must do before returning.


NBA’s Role Now  

“The first thing [the NBA] should have done was issue a forceful condemnation” of Irving, Dashevsky says. Simultaneously, it should have said, “Here’s what we’re doing to educate our entire staff, all of our teams, all of our players” about racism and hate. There are myriad resources and speakers available to help, she argues. 

Then, she says, reach out to employees who might be suffering. In addition, review your anti-harassment, anti-discrimination policies and training. “Confirm that your definitions of discrimination and harassment conform to not only the law, but also what’s expected from an incredibly diverse consumer base that watches the NBA.” 

As we write, it’s unclear what’s next for Irving. The team said Nov. 12 his five-game suspension will last at least one  more game. Some media reports speculate he’ll never play again in the NBA. Nets owner Joe Tsai said Nov. 13, “what people he only apologized after he was suspended.”

Not a sports expert, Dashevsky won’t speculate about Irving’s future, though she says “he’s a liability” based on his history of antisemitism and mis- and disinformation. 

Nierman says Irving’s NBA career shouldn’t end now. Yet he believes the league should step up and counsel players about social media and how it can harm reputation and earning power. This would show the NBA is acting on an important issue. “Share with care and post with purpose,” Nierman says. Posting about a flat Earth won’t help Irving’s career or bolster his image, he adds.