Apr 26, 2012 at 10:00 PM
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Advocacy Groups Seize On Sponsorships To Amplify Message

The upside of high profile sponsorships are obvious, but the down side has also been on display over the past few days. Just as sponsorships offer brands a great opportunity to align with the passions of a wide audience, so too do they give advocacy groups a hook to engage larger audiences in their fight against the sponsor. We've seen this play out in several painfully public examples all the way from Africa to Europe and back here to New York. And that's just in the last week! A rundown...

• Remember Brookfield Properties? The park owner that held the Occupy Wall Street protests and eventually, protestors say, aided in their removal? As a sponsor of Tribeca Film Festival, some filmmakers are encouraging audiences to make noise during Brookfield's trailer and a Facebook page has been launched entitled How the Heck Is Brookfield Properties an OK Sponsor for Tribeca Film Fest?.

• Protestors of BP, a common target, recently ambushed a BP-sponsored Shakespeare play and actually seized the stage in order to raise awareness of BP's environmental record.

• Advocacy groups like Alcohol Justice have called for Anheuser-Busch InBev to end its UFC sponsorship after what they say is a history of "sexist, homophobic, violent and derogatory remarks" made by UFC athletes.

• Groups protesting the environmental track record of Olympic sponsors have stepped up their attacks as the Games draw near, using social media to help champion their cause.

• Protestors have called on Formula One sponsors to skip Bahrain's F1 stop after apparent human rights violations.

Many times, advocacy groups can use sponsorship issues to directly engage with company shareholders. For instance, in a recent letter to A-B shareholders, Alcohol Justice said that the company has not only an ethical obligation, but also an obligation to protect shareholder value by eliminating partnerships that could damage the company's image.

For its part, Anheuser-Busch has been among the best of the four examples listed above at taking notice and responding.

"We've communicated to the UFC our displeasure with certain remarks made by some of its fighters, and they have promised to address this. If the incidents continue, we will act," the brewer said in a statement to Ad Age.

Still, Bud Light's activation of UFC has probably added some fuel to the flames. The brand has been criticized for what some say are sexist ads. Decide for yourself...

The bottom line is whether you're Bud Light, Vodafone, BP or Dow you've got to realize that sponsorship for all its benefits is going to give your opposition a media hook. That's of course no reason to stop sponsoring where your consumer is. Sponsorship works and protestors won't change that. With that said, there's no doubt that we'll see more activation plans including a crisis component that tries to plan and mitigate for the risk that advocacy groups will seize on such deals.

What would be your PR strategy if you're one of the brands listed above? Stop sponsoring is not an option!