Friday, 11 March 2011

He Shoots, He Misses? Hockey Controversy Spotlights Lesson in Sponsorship, Sustainability and Risk Management

From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents. Action must be taken by the organizers. Unless the organizers take immediate action we will withdraw our sponsorship.

Sounds serious, eh? I mean if this was your event, you'd take notice, right? The loss of sponsorship dollars, the public relations nightmare, attendee criticism...what a nightmare. If only you'd taken steps to identify the risks beforehand, and act to reduce or eliminate them.

Unless you're the Commissioner of the National Hockey League, it seems.

If you don't follow hockey you likely missed the news of the latest devastating hit that left Montreal forward Max Pacioretty with a broken neck vertebrae (warning: it will make you wince). Air Canada, NHL sponsor, however, did not. In a recent letter to the NHL they state:

“From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality. Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey."

Inaction on the part of the NHL to address potentially life-threatening risks to players is no longer acceptable to Air Canada, it appears.

Setting aside the valid concerns and debate about violence in sports, what on earth does this have to do with sustainable events and sustainable event destinations?

This is a perfect example of what BS 8901 practitioners call an "event sustainability issue". Or a concern raised by a stakeholder that puts your event or events at risk. In this case the issue relates to health, safety, branding and potential loss of sponsorship revenue. No doubt these are important social responsibility and financial concerns. When a stakeholder flags an issue like this how you respond sends a strong message about your commitment to social responsibility to people impacted by your actions. And this response likely creates a stronger impression about what you value than any green meetings checklist or volunteer project does. It shows them if you care about what they think and feel and how they're affected.

While some may not always see the financial, environmental or social benefits of sustainable events most of us can appreciate the need to minimize risk as much as we can. Taking inventory of your event or event destination to consider what kind of environmental and social responsibility issues might pose threats is a sound business strategy. Being proactive about minimizing significant risks can prevent unnecessary stress and financial damage, and help preserve or even improve image.

In the example above it appears the NHL can afford to disregard this particular stakeholder interest given the Commissioner's indifferent response. But not all of us can afford to treat sponsor, client or attendee concerns as such a low priority. Although it's possible those clubs reliant on Air Canada - such as the victim's Montreal Canadiens - may feel the pinch more than the NHL itself if the airline actually follows through. It seems even the big leagues could learn a bit from the hits and punches sustainability issues throw at event planners and how we decide to roll with them.

UPDATE: VIA Rail also latest sponsor to also criticize NHL

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