Russian rights rows put pressure on Sochi sponsors
By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - With the Winter Olympics in Sochi little more than 100 days away, sponsors face the challenge of getting their message across without falling foul of any consumer backlash against Russia's human rights record.
International concern over Russia's anti-gay propaganda law has prompted fears that the public might turn against brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Samsung that help to fund the Olympics in exchange for global marketing rights to use its name and five-ringed symbol.
Host nation Russia's image abroad has been further dented by its detention last month of 30 Greenpeace activists protesting about oil drilling in Arctic waters, and cases of black soccer players saying they have been racially abused by Russian fans.
"Sochi potentially is the danger Games," said Peter Walshe, a global account director of marketing company Millward Brown. "With these major world events, companies are looking for a halo effect for the brand. Sochi is big and high profile but such events are becoming platforms for social and political protest."
Attempts to divorce the Olympics from their political context have always proved futile but social media now makes it much simpler for protest groups to campaign remotely from a Games.
"Social media has transformed forever the level of risk that sponsors and athletes take into events," said Andy Sutherden, global head of sports at public relations firm Hill+Knowlton.
One current online campaign is urging Coca-Cola executives to speak out about the anti-gay propaganda law and put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has staked huge personal prestige on running a successful Games.
SPONSORS ON THE SPOT Continued...