TOMS Shoes and Focus on the Family: A Puzzling PR Disaster

The principle is simple: buy a cool pair of shoes, and a barefoot guy (or girl) across the globe gets a pair for free. What’s not to like?

A lot, if the outcry online is any indication. TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie managed to potentially offend nearly everyone a couple of days ago when he issued an apology for appearing at an event with Focus on the Family:

Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family’s beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event.  It was an oversight on my part and the company’s part and one we regret.  In the last 18 months we have presented at over 70 different engagements and we do our best to make sure we choose our engagements wisely, on this one we chose poorly.

Furthermore, contrary to what has been reported, Focus on the Family is not a TOMS giving partner.

So there is no misunderstanding created by this mistake, let me clearly state that both TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all.   That belief is a core value of the company and of which we are most proud.

Though Mycoskie has not specified which parts of Focus’s beliefs he didn’t know about, the apology came in response to pressure from gay and lesbian fans upset that he had planned to work with the group.

It was, at best, a clumsy reaction. You can read Focus on the Family’s response here.

TOMS is not a pro- or anti-gay group; in fact, it’s not a political, religious, or cultural group at all: it’s a shoe company. Mycoskie is a Christian, and TOMS has partnered with many Christian organizations—but they’re not a specifically Christian company, and their ubiquitous shoes are equally popular on Christian college campuses and in gay hangouts.

Why didn’t he simply point this out in his response? Why give in to outside pressure on an issue that has nothing to do with the way TOMS does business?

Perhaps because of a threatened boycott:

Yea well Mycoskie better hop on it soon, like today.  Cause we were just on the Facebook Fan Page for the Prop 8 Trialtracker and those queens are not having it. They’ve already posted the link to Tom’s Facebook Fan Page on their wall and messaging left ‘n’ right to get folks over to Tom’s Facebook page pronto to offer up a piece of their minds. The boycott strategy is being laid out as we type.

We just don’t understand Mycoskie. What the hell is he thinking? Hookin’ up with an anti gay outfit like Focus On Family is just begging for trouble.  We don’t think his company can survive this.  What an idiot.

Trouble is, in distancing itself from one of the United States’ most prominent Christian organizations, TOMS also risks being boycotted by Evangelicals. At this point no one seems to have tried to organize such a boycott, but don’t be surprised if someone does.

On the other hand, Mycoskie’s puzzling response may make some more likely to purchase his company’s shoes. His clumsy maneuvering sounds like the response of a real person, not a smartly strategic PR guru. That’s different–a relief, in the midst of an all-too-familiar image battle.

Image via Flickr user jmogle