The Axel Springer boss was Adidas’ employer during a campaign against the sports brand

The chief executive of Axel Springer has used his best-selling tabloid to campaign against Adidas’ decision to stop paying rent during the coronavirus pandemic without disclosing that he is the company’s landlord.

Matthias Döpfner, who has a 22 percent stake in Springer worth more than €1 billion, has become one of the world’s most powerful publishers, acquiring US outlets such as Politico and Business Insider as he seeks to build “the leading digital media company in a democratic world”.

In March and April 2020, leading tabloid Springer Bild published more than 20 articles lambasting Adidas for a planned rent freeze during the first lockout. Other retailers with similar policies, including H&M, Ceconomy, Deichmann and Puma, received considerably less attention. The coverage sparked a national outcry, culminating in one lawmaker burning an Adidas T-shirt and posting a clip on social media.

During its campaign, Bild did not reveal that the group’s chief executive was an affected Adidas landlord and the source of the original story. Land registry data reviewed by the Financial Times show that Döpfner co-owns an old building on Münzstrasse in Berlin’s historic center where Adidas has leased a store that it operates on two floors.

When Döpfner was informed of Adidas’ decision to freeze lease payments, he was furious, according to people familiar with the matter. He contacted Bild’s editor at the time, Julian Reichelt, and suggested that the newspaper organize a public protest on the grounds that Adidas was a hugely profitable company and non-payment violated the basic principles of free economies.

Hours later, Bild reported on Adidas’ hiring freeze. In his first article, he predicted that the move would “cause a great stir.” In the days that followed, the newspaper published a series of articles accusing the sportswear brand of “breaking a taboo”, behaving “ruthlessly” and betraying the legacy of its legendary founder Adi Dassler.

In the following days, news and public opinion articles portrayed Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted as a greedy capitalist who lacked character and undermined basic principles of trust.

Bild’s campaign plunged Adidas into a PR crisis as customers and politicians threatened boycotts, and German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil suggested Adidas could be sued. Florian Post, then a Social Democrat MP, burned an Adidas T-shirt and posted the video on Twitter, saying “I will not wear an Adidas kit again and I want to say something”.

At the time, two out of three Adidas stores globally were closed due to lockdowns, with sales and profits plummeting. Adidas suspended its share buyback program and dividend, and later asked for a 3 billion euro emergency loan backed by the government.

As the furor continued, Adidas eventually backed down, buying full-page ads in German newspapers including Bild to apologize for its “mistake.”

Springer’s code of conduct, updated last year, states that “journalistic publications must not be influenced by the personal or business interests of third parties, the company’s own commercial interests outside the journalistic business, or the personal financial interests of the editors themselves.” The guidelines also state that journalists “must not use their reporting to benefit themselves or others.”

In a statement to the FT, Springer denied there was any potential conflict of interest, calling the idea “absurd”. The publisher said Döpfner passed on the information to Bild because he “immediately understood that this was a matter of paramount public interest” that needed to be disclosed.

“That’s the publisher’s job. From today’s perspective, he would and will do exactly the same,” the company said, adding that Adidas is not expected to reverse its decision.

The publisher said that Döpfner “of course” disclosed his personal interest to Reichelt, but added that it would be “absolutely unwise to reveal the source” in print. It also claimed that the reporting was “not about a single store in Berlin” but potentially affected thousands of Adidas stores around the world.

“The story . . . was a mega scoop for Bild and was picked up by many other journalists internationally, including the FT,” Springer said, adding that Döpfner “acted fully in accordance with our guidelines.” The company described him as an “executive director, who understands journalism” and often shares advice with the editors. “It’s not [up to] for him to decide whether and how that information should be covered or not; editorials decide and act completely independently.”

Reichelt said: “I generally do not discuss or confirm sources, even sources that may or may not identify themselves. As the editor, it was my decision to run the story.”

Döpfner this year resigned as president of the German Publishers Association after facing questions about his handling of a compliance investigation into alleged abuse of power by Reichelt, who was fired in October. Reichelt has denied any wrongdoing.

Adidas declined to comment.

Additional reporting by Silke Richter in Berlin

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