Watching the FIFA crisis comms reactions from the sponsoring brands is an interesting study of how little control we have over our brand story in today’s real-time communications ecosystem. But does that change anything?

What the FIFA?

Unless you’ve been holed up somewhere without an internet connection, you probably heard tell of the FIFA corruption scandal this week that has several of its top-ranking officials in custody and/or facing extradition on charges of corruption, bribery, and various other charges that one typically associates with, you know, the mob.

Speaking of which, the world “goodfellas” showed up in FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s social word cloud yesterday, and it would seem for good reason: somehow, despite the size and scale of this scandal, and the UK Prime minister directly calling for him to step down, and global sentiment like this…

…Blatter still managed to win today’s vote and be re-elected as FIFA President. And this is bad news for FIFA’s brand sponsors, from a social and brand sentiment perspective:

Guilty by Allegation – and Association

The social sentiment over the past few days is clear: people want the sponsors to put their money where their mouths are – or, more accurately, to not put it there. Negative sentiment for all the brands involved with FIFA has skyrocketed with overall chatter volume (which is astronomical), and one incredible thing to note here is that Nike – who is actually implicated in the scandal – is now generating less chatter overall than some of the other brands, most notably Adidas. This isn’t to say that Nike isn’t experiencing a bona fide crisis comms moment: they are, and their sentiment is more negative than ever. But the ongoing chatter is focusing on other sponsors, perhaps because the public at large has already passed judgement on Nike (and found the company guilty), while we’re still waiting to see how the other brands respond.

When I dug into the data around some of the big sponsoring brands, the story was pretty consistent: they’re all over each other’s data, as people lump them all into one party and call on them to do something about it. This is the Coca-Cola word cloud measuring social chatter over the past three days:

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World

We’ve never seen anything quite like the FIFA scandal. This is a global depth charge and mushroom cloud in one, bringing up all sorts of unrelated grievances while at the same time affecting anyone in its path. Example:

This is a scandal that has not only business implications, but geo-political ones as well: Vladimir Putin showed up in the FIFA word cloud yesterday after speaking out to both condemn U.S. authorities and offer his support of Sepp Blatter, and then social media exploded with reaction to that. Of course, Putin potentially has something very big to lose from this scandal: the 2018 World Cup is set for Russia, and its bidding process is now under investigation. England has already threatened a boycott of the event.

Putin’s statements are among the most clear and decisive of anyone involved, however.

The Traditional Crisis Comms Playbook in Action

What’s been really interesting to watch for me, from a marketing perspective, is how FIFA’s sponsoring brands have handled a global crisis communications situation that is, to an extent, completely out of their hands – or is it? The public outcry calling for the big brands to pull their sponsorship money would indicate that consumers aren’t blind to the fact this entire scandal was fueled by money, and dollars speak louder than words when it comes to big business.

Despite the extensive calls for action, not a single one of the sponsoring brands fingered by millions of tweets – and that includes Nike – has done anything beyond issue a static statement that lives on their website. There has been no news of sponsorships revoked, nor has there been any social media activity at all: this is, quite simply, not a conversation that these brands want to have at this point. VISA’s official statement says this:

Visa became a sponsor of FIFA because the World Cup is one of the few truly global sporting events with the power to unite people from around the world through a common love of football.

And, indeed, the truly global nature of soccer is the double-edged sword in this scandal. This is a conversation that’s being had all over the world, in dozens of different languages, and that conversation is actually growing: the 28th saw twice as much chatter (and that includes negative chatter around the sponsorship brands) than the 27th did, and with Sepp Blatter’s re-election it would seem that this isn’t a topic that folks are going to let go of anytime soon.

But of course, it’s the weekend. And it’s summer. And history will tell us that people have short attention spans. And so, the fact that these global brands are sticking to a tried-and-true playbook of “wait it out” isn’t surprising. The question from a marketing perspective is whether or not this scandal, which is so unlike any we’ve seen before in terms of its global reach and scale, will fade away without any real consequences for FIFA’s sponsoring brands (or its President. Or Nike). And if it continues to grow, will these brands have to engage in conversation with their customers? Will they take any assertive action to repair their reputations?

For now, the question that’s on everyone’s mind can be summed up in a single tweet: