Air Canada Is On Their Game

In Tuesday’s National Hockey League match-up between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, Habs forward Max Pacioretty suffered a serious concussion and a broken vertebra in his neck after a devastating hit by Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara.  Chara received a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct for the hit, but, to the surprise of many, he was not suspended.

Now, despite being Canadian, I’m not a diehard hockey fan.  I watch Hockey Night in Canada sometimes, I’ll watch the playoffs, at least while there’s still a Canadian team in the running, and I even go to see a game once in a while.  But this hit has my attention, not because it’s so different from those that have happened before, but because of its link to – you guessed it – corporate responsibility.

What, you might wonder, does a check in hockey have to do with corporate responsibility?  Well, a lot, it turns out, if you’re Air Canada.

Air Canada is one of the NHL’s largest financial backers; they own the naming rights to Air Canada Centre, the NHL arena in Toronto, and they’re big sponsors of a number of Canadian and US teams.  On Wednesday, Air Canada took what may be an unprecedented step, threatening to withdraw their substantial sponsorship of the league unless the NHL takes “immediate” and “serious” action in doling out suspensions to discourage headshots in hockey.  Air Canada was responding not only to the Pacioretty hit, but to a number of prior life- and career-threatening hits this season.  This may be the equivalent of a flying body check to the entire league.

In his letter addressed to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Denis Vandal, Air Canada’s director of marketing/communications apparently wrote, “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.” [emphasis added]

As a corporate responsibility practitioner, I have encouraged corporate clients to leverage their influence to address corporate responsibility issues, where possible – for example, working with governments in developing countries to improve human rights. But this is the first time I’ve seen such a decisive and timely step by a corporation to use their might – expressed, in this case, in terms of sponsorship dollars – to push for better conduct.

Some may debate whether Air Canada is qualified to pass judgement on the appropriate punishment for sport infractions, but it is entirely justified in voicing concern about the connection between its brand and the perceived erosion of safety and integrity in the game of hockey.

I’m impressed that Air Canada has taken such a clear and definitive stand, clearly guided by strong corporate values.  If the NHL steps up to the challenge and addresses the issues raised by Air Canada, this could be a win-win for both sides – something we’ll never see on the ice.

I referred to and used information from this Winnipeg Sun article by Bruce Garrioch, QMI Agency, in preparing this post.

UPDATE: March 12, 2011

On Friday, VIA Rail sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, calling the league’s response to the Chara-Pacioretty hit “totally unacceptable.”  VIA also stated “we have a responsibility as a stakeholder to take a position and share our concerns” [emphasis added].  In contrast to Air Canada, however, VIA did not propose to withdraw its financial support of the NHL, “because we believe our sponsorship is what gives us a right to be critical and demand changes and more discipline in the way discipline is administered.”

This approach is interesting, because it casts the sponsor-league relationship not merely as a financial transaction, but as a stakeholder relationship that may be leveraged to address issues brought forward by the stakeholder, at least – as VIA has recognized – as long as there is a ‘stake’ at play.  Which approach turns out to be most effective remains to be seen.

Apparently other Canadian corporations with ties to the NHL are also watching closely to see what comes out of next week’s meeting between Bettman and the league’s general managers, before determining whether to take action of their own.  (That raises another issue that would benefit from some stakeholder influence: the need for greater transparency in the dialogue about violence in professional hockey.)

One final thought: did Air Canada’s threat to withdraw its NHL sponsorship effectively poison the well for other prospective sponsors?  If Air Canada does, ultimately, withdraw its sponsorship, and another airline (or other corporation, for that matter) steps into the vacancy, is that other company exposing itself to the possible criticism that its social responsibility standards are lower than Air Canada’s?  And what does it mean for the many other corporate sponsors who have remained silent on the issue so far?   We’ll continue to keep our eye on this puck…

Click here for a Globe and Mail story on VIA Rail’s letter to the NHL.

  1. I realize that Air Canada is trying to take a stand on the Corporate Responsibility side, but I feel like the link between the actual game and their sponsorship is not strong enough to have an impact on the viewers. I think that there are plenty of companies that would jump on the opportunity to be affiliated with the NHL. Also, this hit I feel is just a pinch into the boards gone wrong, I understand a serious injury occurred but I don’t think that was the intention. There have been plenty of other opportunities to make this stand why now?

    • Thanks for commenting!
      I agree that Air Canada’s withdrawal of their league sponsorship may not have a significant effect on hockey viewers; indeed, it may even go unnoticed by many. However, I think Air Canada is concerned specifically about a subset of NHL viewers – namely, its current and prospective customers – as well as other individuals who are not avid hockey fans but who nevertheless see and hear about violence in the game.
      Any company that chooses to sponsor an event, and thereby link its brand to that event, is banking its reputation, at least in some measure, on the integrity of that event.
      Safety is a core cultural value at Air Canada. It makes sense, therefore, for the company to consider the impact (for example, in terms of the message it sends to its employees and its customers about Air Canada’s respect for safety) of aligning its brand with the NHL, and by extension, the apparently escalating level of violence in the league (compared, say, to Olympic hockey). This is particularly true as individual consumers seek, more and more, to patronize businesses whose values are demonstrably closely aligned with their own.
      Air Canada’s threat to withdraw its league sponsorship is a principled approach to upholding its corporate values. Air Canada will enjoy a reputational win (at least among safety-conscious customers and investors) if the NHL responds favourably and moves to address the headshot issue. Air Canada is also likely to enjoy a reputational win if, in the event the NHL does not take action, Air Canada follows through and withdraws their sponsorship and redirects it to some other sporting or cultural event more aligned with their corporate values.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read my blog and share your thoughts!
      Celesa

  2. Hi Celesa,

    I completely agree with your points especially the one on Air Canada aligning its goals with safety. I am just commenting on the perspective of a fan and i realize those who are not avoid hockey fans will have different feeling on the game.

    I just think that when sponsoring an sport, especially a full contact sport like hockey it is a given that ones safety is put at risk. The NHL is game that holds an entertainment value in society and the biggest entertainment part to the game is big hits. With that said, I do believe that cracking down on cheap shots is definitely something that should be looked into, however it will never be fully removed from the game.

    But good for Air Canada for raising their voice and standing up for what they believe in.

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