Athletic gear company New Balance came under fire after its VP of Public Affairs Matt LeBretton made a comment that appeared to support President-elect Donald Trump.
Following the election last Wednesday, Wall Street Journal reporter Sara Germano tweeted LeBretton’s quote, saying: “The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us & frankly w/ Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”
It didn’t take long for Germano’s tweet to spread and trigger a full-blown PR crisis for the brand.
Many New Balance shoe owners who took issue with the comment expressed their disagreement by dumping their shoes or setting them on fire and posting the photos on social media.
— skreetware (@milftears) November 10, 2016
— Jon Targaryen (@tbrooks__) November 10, 2016
In an attempt to clarify the situation, the Boston-headquartered sneaker company issued a statement, saying that LeBretton’s quote was taken out of context and that it only referred to President-elect Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which New Balance opposed as well:
“As the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the United States, New Balance has a unique perspective on trade in that we want to make more shoes in the United States, not less,” the company said in a statement. “New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prior to election day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today. We believe in community.”
From the perspective of public relations, the New Balance controversy serves as a good reminder that, when it comes to consumer brands, getting political (especially in the aftermath of such a contentious election) is generally not a good idea. Regardless of the expressed position and the supported candidate, such politicized statements have the potential to alienate a large group of the brand’s customer base, which often cuts across the political spectrum.
At a time when the nation is decidedly split in two political camps, brands, company spokespersons and CEOs need to be very careful about any public comments they make that could be interpreted as an expression of support for either side.
As for New Balance, once it gets over its ongoing PR crisis, the company will have to re-focus on striking a new balance in its communications with its customers.