Is It Good Crisis Response Strategy for the NASCAR Driver to Speak Out in the Storm?
12/27/21 – – What a surprise it must have been for Amanda and Jared Schmeck and their four children to hear the voices of Jill and Joe Biden on the other end of a phone call they made to the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s “Santa Tracker” on Christmas Eve. The Oregon family’s father concluded the cordial conversation with these holiday wishes: “Merry Christmas and let’s go Brandon.”
While the First Family moved onto the next call without making a big deal out of the coded slur now familiar to most Americans, the internet exploded in anger. Even some of President Biden’s harshest critics denounced Mr. Schmeck’s incivility.
Jared Schmeck, a former police officer, has not been enjoying his sudden fame. Responding to death threats he’s been receiving, he explained in an interview with the Oregonian, “At the end of the day, I have nothing against Mr. Biden, but I am frustrated because I think he can be doing a better job. I mean no disrespect to him.”
Being pulled into politics, willingly or unwillingly, can be very painful these days. No one knows that better than Brandon Brown, the 28-year-old NASCAR driver at the center of the “Let’s Go Brandon” meme that got Mr. Schmeck into so much trouble.
If you’re not familiar with the backstory, Brown was being interviewed on October 2 by NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast after winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Talladega Superspeedway — the first major first-place finish of his career — when spectators began cheering “F*** Joe Biden.” Stavast, apparently concerned about the foul language going out on the air, injected, “As you can hear the chants from the crowd, ‘Let’s Go Brandon.’”
With no regard for what damage it might do to Brandon Brown’s career, people displeased with President Biden immediately began using the euphemism on t-shirts, banners and in conversation. Across the country, football stadiums filled with tens of thousands of fans have erupted in the derogatory chant.
At first, Brown tried to stay as far away as he could from the controversy, tweeting, “*not political … just feelin myself,” and “To all the other Brandon’s out there, You’re welcome! Let’s go us.” But in the last few weeks, with his corporate sponsorships drying up, he has done an interview with The New York Times, stating, “I have zero desire to be involved in politics,” and authored a guest editorial in Newsweek titled “My Name is Brandon,” which begins:
I am Brandon, the NASCAR driver and unlikely meme. A 28-year-old who now finds himself in the middle of the American political conversation. As a pro driver, I never expected to be in the passenger seat of my own viral moment.
He concludes with this promise:
To my fans, to NASCAR fans and to everyone who has chanted my name: I dedicate myself this upcoming season to compete hard on the racetrack and to spotlight issues that are important to me and to millions of Americans across the country. ‘Let’s Go America.’
How should we grade Brandon Brown’s more aggressive crisis response strategy?
In Chapter 20 (“Dealing with Collateral Brand Damage”) of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, I recommend silence as the best response to most instances of what I call crises by association — situations people, companies or organizations are pulled into by no fault of their own. Just last month we discussed what I believe was an overreaction by the distillers of Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey to celebrations using their beverage after the not-guilty verdict in the Kenosha, Wisconsin, trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
But as I also point out in my book, every crisis is unique. And in the case of Brandon Brown, whose “brand” was not established before this crisis, I believe his more affirmative communication strategy is warranted — especially if he can stay focused on issues, not politics. Appropriately commenting on the impact of high gasoline prices on his profession and the average American family, he states in Newsweek:
But I’m also no longer going to be silent about the situation I find myself in, and why millions of Americans are chanting my name. I hear them, even if Washington does not.
When asked by The New York Times about his politics, he replied, “The issue is, I don’t know enough about politics to really form a true opinion, so I really focus on racing.”
Navigating the gray area between issues and politics will be challenging, even for an accomplished NASCAR driver. But by taking control of his narrative, Brandon Brown has the best chance of defining himself over the chants of the crowd. Sponsors and fans now have a better idea of what they are supporting.
As for Jared Schmeck, his prospects for crisis recovery are far less promising. In fact, crisis counselors may in the future make use of his ill-timed incivility by advising clients: “Don’t be a Schmeck.”