Ewan Larkin
Oct 22, 2022

‘Brands should run, not walk away:’ Lessons from PR pros on Kanye West crisis

Crisis, legal and sports communications experts weigh in on West’s recent actions, and detail strategies brands can use when celebrity-related issues arise.

‘Brands should run, not walk away:’ Lessons from PR pros on Kanye West crisis

During his meteoric rise to stardom, Kanye West became a coveted partnership for brands, attracting deals from major companies such as BalenciagaGap and Adidas.

But a business relationship with the rapper now known as Ye has often been more trouble than it’s worth. The producer-turned-rapper has always been prone to controversy, seemingly unable to avoid negative headlines.

While it appears that companies have been willing to accept Ye’s outspoken nature as a price of partnership admission, the musician’s recent actions are a tipping point for some brands. 

During a “secret” catwalk event during Paris fashion week in early October, Ye, along with some models, wore a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt. Less than a week later, the musician was locked out of his Twitter and Instagram accounts after making anti-Semitic comments

Howard Bragman, chairman and founder of LaBrea.Media, says that companies that have partnered with Ye have a clear-cut responsibility. 

“Brands should run, not walk away,” he says. “They should be condemning [Ye] and dropping their contracts with him immediately.” 

Bragman adds that, for something as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, companies must “make it clear where they stand” regardless of the financial fallout. 

Ron Berkowitz, president and founder of Berk Communications, says that brands need to separate themselves from Ye’s remarks, even if they intend on continuing the relationship in the long-term. 

“The most important part is making sure the public understands ‘this is [Ye]’s opinion, not ours, it’s not the way we think or speak,’” he says. 

Some brands have indeed walked away. Last month, Ye informed Gap that he was planning to terminate his agreement with the retailer, claiming Gap violated the contract by not releasing apparel and opening stores as planned. 

The brand said in response that it is “winding down” its relationship with Ye, as the parties are “not aligned” in how they work together, according to an internal memo seen by The Wall Street Journal.

Brands interested in teaming up with Ye must read the writing on the wall, says Andrew Friedman, EVP of legal affairs and crisis comms at BerlinRosen. 

“Entering into a business relationship with [Ye] right now is like slapping your logo on a car accident,” he says. “Even though people might stop to look, it’s a bad situation for everyone involved.”

One of Ye’s largest partnerships is with Adidas, which began in 2016 when the rapper agreed to manufacture and distribute items from Yeezy products through the sportswear and apparel retailer.

The relationship has become strained in recent years, however, with Ye repeatedly accusing Adidas and its executives of stealing his ideas and leaving him out of Yeezy-related planning. 

On October 6, before the anti-Semitic posts, Adidas said that its relationship with Ye was “under review.” In a statement, reported by CNBC, Adidas said that it had made “repeated efforts to privately resolve the situation” with Ye, and that it would “continue to co-manage” the Yeezy product during the review process. 

Many people have used social media to criticize Adidas, a company based in Germany, where there are strict laws on antisemitic speech and images, for not severing ties with Ye. 

Adidas did not respond to a request seeking comment on the company’s partnership with Ye.

Friedman says Adidas is “doing what [it] has to do” after Ye’s public outbursts towards the company, and that it can be difficult to absolve a significant brand partnership immediately. 

“There are legal and reputational considerations that have to be managed,” he says. “Sometimes it’s not easy to do things as quickly as the headlines demand, even when it is clearly the right thing to do.”

Businesses also often have to consider the financial implications of ending a partnership, Berkowitz says. 

“Sometimes business does get in the way, and I think that’s probably a part of the issue [for Adidas],” Berkowitz says. 

According to Bloomberg, the Yeezy line contributes $974.5 million, or 4% to 8%, of Adidas group revenues. Forbes estimated that Ye’s deal with Adidas is worth $220 million annually and $1.5 billion total.

Balenciaga has not released a statement on its partnership with Ye. 

Bragman says that there is no playbook for dealing with celebrity-related crises, as each one “has their own DNA when things go south.”

Berkowitz echoes Bragman’s point, but adds that Berk Communications’ first priority in response to celebrity-related crises is to minimize damage. To do so, he says it is imperative to get celebrities in front of the right news outlet and audience, giving them an opportunity to apologize or clarify their actions, a tactic he admits is difficult with someone as opinionated as Ye. 

Before entering into deals with high-profile clients, Berkowitz advises them to be hyper-aware of the increasingly digital environment and wary of social media’s permanent memory.

“There’s always someone looking to tear down the castle you built,” he says. “There’s photographers everywhere, and I don’t just mean paparazzi. Now there’s cameras in everyone’s hands.”

Berk Communications works with New York Yankees baseball player Aaron Judge, as well as Michael Rubin and Alex Rodriguez. The agency also handled PR for musician and entrepreneur Yo Gotti.

Despite the backlash, it seems that Ye has no plans to keep his opinions quiet. On Monday, the musician inked a deal to acquire conservative social media platform Parler. He told Bloomberg that Twitter and Instagrams’ restrictive free speech policies were the impetus behind the deal. 


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