I’m not saying all partnerships are doomed, but as a CEO, you shouldn’t underestimate the potential post-breakup damage your company could endure from a brand partnership.
In successful partnerships, both brands win. When Gap partnered with The Global Fund to create the (RED) campaign, for example, it positioned itself as socially responsible, and The Global Fund raised awareness and money to end AIDS in Africa.
But how do you know when a collaboration may not work? While warning signs of tanking partnerships are often easy to spot—financial problems, poor communication, etc.—many indicators of a future scandal can slip through even the most thorough background checks.
Although Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Syneron Candela, airweave, and other brands could not possibly have predicted spokesperson Ryan Lochte’s Rio scandal—lying about being robbed at gunpoint by Brazilian police—the brands still ran a chance of being on the hook for Lochte’s unsavory behavior. Unsurprisingly, the companies cut ties with the athlete.
Similarly, when LEGO and Shell released Shell-branded toys in 2014, Greenpeace criticized LEGO for allowing the oil company to use its positive image to improve public perception of Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. A Greenpeace YouTube video on the topic garnered millions of views, pressuring LEGO to end the decades-long relationship.
To avoid a PR crisis, it’s important to spot the warning signs of a bad match. Take note when partners point out problems without suggesting solutions, and create a bulletproof partnership agreement.
How to end a destructive partnership
If expectations are clearly unmet, gauging when to cut a partner loose will be easy, but initiating the breakup is the moment of truth. If you get bad vibes from current partners, here are a few ways to let them down gently.
1. Use the contract to your advantage. When your relationship comes to an end, don’t rely on assumptions to make your case. Missed expectations and poorly defined contracts have destroyed friendships. Instead of pleading your case, let the exit agreement outlined in your contract do the talking.
2. Keep it amicable. Avoid burning bridges, as you never know what opportunities may stem from your relationship. Decide early on, when drawing up the contract, what you want out of the partnership in the event it dissolves.
3. Mind the legalities. With the complexity of partnership liabilities and debts, ending the relationship can be a minefield of legal troubles. Always use trusted counsel to eliminate any chance of a legal showdown. If you don’t already have a dissolution clause in your partnership agreement, it’s not too late to bring in a mediator to hash one out.
Just waking up from a nightmare? Time for crisis control
Maybe you didn’t see the warning signs, or perhaps you weren’t able to break off the relationship until it was too late. But dealing with the aftermath means you need to double down on repairing your brand’s reputation. Here’s how.
1. Fall back on the good. Outside of this crisis, your brand has made a positive difference. Pull from the good you’ve done in the past, and leverage that against the negativity. Make sure key leaders are visible and acting in ways that show the public what your company is about. Represent your values at all times.
2. Think before you speak. You don’t want to speak up and tell the press something it wants to hear, only to later find a hole or misinformation in your statement. Wait until you know every relevant detail before you share a decision to keep the nightmare from growing.
3. Stay present. At every point during a crisis, you need to be present. Although you don’t want to speak too early, you absolutely don’t want to hide from the press—you still need to offer an answer. It could be as simple as “We aren’t making a decision until we determine what the investigation shows; then, we will be prompt in announcing our decision.” Doing so tells others that you’re present while you tackle your action plan behind the scenes.
Brand partnership dissolutions can be costly, but avoiding them altogether can mean missed opportunities. Even if you find yourself in a crisis, careful damage control can prevent permanent harm to your reputation. Establish a plan to ensure your brand stays intact, then pursue a partnership without fear.
Sarah Clark is the president of Mitchell, a public relations firm that creates conversations between people, businesses, and brands through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. Clark has more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and a track record of protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.