We (humans) tend to be extremely present people that enjoy drama and big reactions, but when it comes to following through can sometimes fall short. Some PR plunders go unnoticed whether it’s because no one shared it on Facebook or it was irrelevant next to the newest story about Donald Trump… However, once some scandals surface, it takes a lot of work to a) realize the complete circumstance, b) downplay the situation, c) defend the company, and d) maintain positivity within the brand image. There are may PR affairs that have taken place in the past 5 years, but the one I have decided to take a closer look at the Under Armour speed skating suit incident during the 2014 Olympics.
Originally, this was a great opportunity for Under Armour. They were assigned to create Team USA’s speed skating suits attempting to make “the fastest, most aerodynamic speed skating ‘skin’ ever: The Mach 39” (McCarthy, 2014). This Mach 39 was credited as a way for Under Armour to finally be a global powerhouse against Nike. Ultimately, the suit did not work the wonders it was meant to… Or at least it didn’t provide the long-tack speed skating team with the winning record they hoped. Therefore, the suits had a questionable design of vents in the back of the suit that were a possible contributing problem problem according to the skaters and critics (McCarthy,2014). Even after switching back to the old Under Armour suits, the team still wasn’t winning.
After researching and understanding the problem that this situation presents for Under Armour, the four step management plan to be taken begins with the proactive phase. During this phase, I can assume the current staff connected with this project was all over the place with testing, interviewing the athletes, and scanning for every possible outcome and what might have contributed to that outcome even before they got to Sochi. According to Jared Hopkins, “in today’s Olympic sports, athletes’ equipment is crucial to how well they perform” so the suit was highly anticipated by the U.S. team because speed skater’s times’ can differ to as low as tenths of seconds, which is not very much time to make up for (2014a). The original feedback for the suit was up to par. The process to getting there was rough though with over 100 textiles being tested and constant suits being trashed instantly (Hopkins, 2014a). The response UA was hoping for was very apparent when a one of the speed skaters, Patrick Meek, expressed “You feel fast — the way it moves, the way it feels, the way it sounds. The way it smells is fast.” (Hopkins, 2014a). Even though the teams knew failure was a responsibility, with the team coming off of a successful year before, they were confident going into things. From knowing this information before Sochi, the best thing to do was simply know that failure was an option and understand that since the suit was brand new, it may be blamed- and then plan accordingly with a pre-crisis management plan.
After fully scanning the situation and understanding all possible outcomes, the next phase to take is the strategic phase. Within this phase, the goal is to place oneself (a company) into the best position according to the crisis in motion. Since public health or skater safety was not at risk for this crisis, the positioning was more centered around how the public would then view UA as an athletic brand after possibly causing the downfall of the 2014 Olympic speed skater’s. It would be beneficial for Under Armour to have been in constant contact with the U.S. team to assure that a good relationship was kept up with a mutual understanding of the new suits possible performances. This would include meetings, partnership press releases about the new suits and their realistic expectations, and news articles outlining the same information. If this risk communication was done prior to this incident, the need crisis communication could have possibly been reduced.
When the U.S. skating team actually began to lose their races and the athletes began to criticize and place blame on the Mach 39, the peak of the crisis was in sight. This is known as the reactive phase. Within this phase, crisis communication is in full swing. The Under Armour team began coming up with statements as well as the U.S. skating team. Under Armour was the first to come out and say “Under Armour is dedicated to providing the most innovative, state-of-the-art technology to our world-class athletes for competition in Sochi and in competition around the world,” (Myerberg, 2014). This technique could be recognized as denial because the company is releasing that they’re productions are top notch, almost as a tactic to revert back to their roots and their company objectives. Shortly after, Ted Morris, U.S. Speedskating’s executive director, said “the technology of the suits wasn’t the issue. The athletes simply weren’t comfortable racing in a suit without prior experience,” (Whiteside, 2014). Both statements work together to support and defend UA and the Mach 39. The U.S. speed skating team even publicly extended their contact with UA until 2022 (Hopkins, 2014b). These actions assure that the public knows Under Armour and the U.S. speed skating team are still on good terms and showing trust and support in each other which is appealing to fans and publics in general. Another approach they could have considered taking in this step was a justification that the suits were only unveiled to the team for practice a couple weeks in advance (Hopkins, 2014b) and expressing that the athletes may not have had the appropriate time to adjust to the new equipment and even make the promise that they will have ample time with new products moving forward.
After this crisis communication comes the recovery phase. This phase requires the reputation management and image restoration. Since statements have already been released speaking directly to the crisis the recovery is more based off of what how the publics have responded to those statements and how the image of the company can be bolstered. Diane Pelkey, UA’s VP-global communications and entertainment, assured the publics “We wanted to stand up and show our support and tell the world that we believe and are committed to U.S. Speedskating. We are going to double down on speedskating.” (McCarthy, 2014). This is just one example of the many reactions UA made to this fiasco. Ultimately, the company made it clear they were rising to the occasion of the extended contract and going to do everything in their power to succeed in the future. I believe this was right move because if they had let this situation simmer, the blame would have most likely grown and the consequences could have been the loss of a MAJOR sponsorship with the U.S. Olympic team. I would have also used the athlete’s platforms on social media as a way to combat and negative perceptions that may have stemmed from this. For example, any other teams that use UA equipment could have been endorsing that as well as the speed skaters expressing their gratitude for UA’s dedication and hard work.
Overall, this crisis was handled well and will fully pan out in the 2018 Olympics. However, I do not believe that this has had a long-term effect on UA in the publics eyes because of the crisis communication that had taken place. Now that I have this full story, I will definitely be staying tuned for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea and you better believe there will be a follow-up from me.
Check out the links throughout the blog and find out even more about all of this. If you want to learn more about the phases I used to assess this crisis, check out THINK–Public Relations, by Dennis Wilcox, Glen Cameron, Bryan Reber, and Jae-hwa Shin. (All references listed below)
Hopkins, J. S. (2014a, January 16). Dressed for success. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://articles.latimes.com/2014/jan/16/sports/la-sp-sochi-speedskating-uniforms-20140116
Hopkins, J. S. (2014b, February 23). U.S. Speedskating tries to track what went wrong at Sochi Olympics. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://articles.latimes.com/2014/feb/23/sports/la-sp-sochi-speedskating-assess-2014022
Myerberg, P. (2014, February 17). Under Armour defends suits as U.S. speedskaters go cold. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/sochi/2014/02/17/under-armour-speed-suits-usa-speedskaters/5558843/
Whiteside, K. (2014, May 01). U.S. speedskating says don’t blame Under Armour suits. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2014/05/01/us-speedskating-under-armour-suits/8589263/
McCarthy., M. (2014, March 10). Under Armour’s Olympic Experience Is Textbook Case for How to Handle Crisis. Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/armour-s-olympic-experience-shows-handle-crisis/291990/
Wilcox, D. L., Cameron, G. T., Reber, B. H., & Shin, J. (2014). THINK public relations. Harlow: Pearson Education.