Someone is lying at Nike. The only question is who. The mystery surrounds how the shoe company approached the thuggish Chinese dictatorship over online rumors about an athlete it sponsors. No one disputes that Nike, which recently claimed its shoes have "become an icon of self-expression and a symbol of Democratic style," ran to the repressive regime in a snit. Someone claiming to be close to Nike had issued an anonymous Web post claiming the company forced Liu Xiang, pictured, to exit the games because he was unlikely to win. This echoed tampering allegations Nike also faced in Brazil. Does Nike want the poster hunted down and thrown in jail? Hunted down and unmasked, so he can be sued? Or simply handled by the Chinese government in whatever manner it feels appropriate? No one has any idea, because Nike keeps changing its story — and digging itself into a deeper hole.
The first version of events is the worst. Nike's initial statement was an email to French newswire AFP not only denying the rumor but adding (emphasis added in all quotes):
We have immediately asked relevant government departments to investigate those that started the rumour.
That line may have originated from European Nike spokesman Massimo Giunco, quoted in AFP's story.
Later, Britain's Guardian wrote of the investigation demand, "Nike is enlisting the services of a repressive regime to crush its enemies." Nike spokesman Charlie Brooks, far from denying anything, told the paper:
"This isn't about a debate on freedom of speech. It's simply helping us to identify the person who posted it.
"We have no intention of tracking anyone down, or asking for any punishment." He said the company merely plans to file a complaint with Chinese authorities concerning the Web post.
...Manager told The Oregonian... the shoe giant has not asked the Chinese government to find out who posted "malicious rumours" about it on the Internet.
So, to recap: On Tuesday Nike said it asked the government to "investigate" its online critic. On Wednesday Nike's Charlie Brooks said the request was about "helping us to identify the person who posted" the rumor. But by the end of Friday, Nike's Vada Manager was claiming "we have no intention of tracking anyone down" and that it has not asked the government to do so.
These statements are mutually exclusive. Someone at Nike is lying about the company's response and intentions, creating the appearance of a coverup. Yet it's not a very good one, since all stories involve complaining to the Chinese government about free expression on the internet.
Nike is now, on several levels, in a worse public relations position than when rumors first emerged it manhandled its own athlete.
One, it seems to be putting the financial value of its brand over the physical freedom of an internet poster who is, at worst, a random rumormongering conspiracy theorist.
Two, strong-arming a critic and lying about it just adds credence to the theory Nike strong-armed its athlete and lied about it. Unwise.
A global marketing executive for Chinese company Lenovo reminded Nike on his personal blog this weekend that "a big rule in community relations [is], don't ask the Chinese government to go fish for the identity of someone posting bullshit about your brand." Nike's PR executives should all commit that modern proverb to memory.