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McIlroy’s brand image strays off course

From a PR perspective, Rory’s round of golf with Donald Trump seems a little at odds with the brand image he has so carefully built up.

Earlier this week, a tweet posted by golf tech firm Clear Sports showed a smiling Rory McIlroy in the company of US President, Donald Trump. The two had played a round at the Trump International course in Florida with Clear Sports CEO Garry Singer and Paul O’Neil, the former pro baseball player.

To say the photo-op was surprising is an understatement. For Trump it was certainly great PR, hanging out with the uber-cool, social-savvy world number 3 golfer. Given the bashing he has taken from celebrities, including some of the world’s most high-profile athletes, it’s no wonder he jumped at the chance.

For McIlroy, the decision to play a round of golf with such a divisive figure is puzzling to say the least. Rory is all about cool – cool golf, cool gear, cool choices: he has built a brand specifically designed to appeal to the cool kids of this world. In that context, cosying up to Donald Trump hardly seems on-brand.

“I can’t believe McIlroy has done this,” said Lawrence Donegan, the respected golf correspondent. “You must understand the symbolism. He doesn’t talk to the old media, he [only] talks to the new media. Good on him, but to then go and do this is the very opposite to what his intentions are. It is literally unbelievable.”

So why did he do it? Maybe he felt he had little choice in the matter, although he doesn’t seem the shy and retiring kind. Last year, soon after Trump announced his infamous plans to build a border wall between Mexico and the US, McIlroy joked: “It’s ironic we’re going to Mexico after being at Doral. We’ll jump over the wall!”

The golfer has strayed into choppy PR waters before, notably with his iffy withdrawal from the Olympics, although most would agree he was in a very difficult position at the time. His subsequent, dismissive comments about Rio 2016 were also questionable but he was at least praised for speaking his mind.

This, however, seems like a poor judgement call. From a PR perspective, it certainly looks at odds with the strategy that has carefully positioned him as one of the world’s brightest, most progressive young sporting talents.

McIlroy himself has spoken of his admiration for fellow Nike ambassador, Roger Federer. “He’s a role model, someone I can pattern myself after,” he said of the Swiss superstar, whose articulate courtesy both on and off the court are the polar opposite of some of the White House briefings lately.

McIlroy has said before that he would never consider partnering with an alcohol brand, yet by posing with the US President he has given an endorsement to that administration – and everything that comes with it.

Whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to tee it up with Trump, or something he and his team considered at length, that round of golf was a curious decision and a PR ploy that is hard to fathom. Whether there’s any long-term fall-out for the McIlroy brand, we shall see.

Topics: branding, sport, PR

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