PR, Social Media Backlash, and Does Any of It Really Matter?

PR disaster for abercrombie
photo credit: Narith5 via photopin cc

Today’s rapid fire social media space is making tough work of traditional public relations. Is modern public relations more promotional activities to create a strong public image of a company? Or is it becoming more about reputation management? Helping the public understand the background and mission of a company and its product or services are part of PR activities. When done right, public relations can influence a large audience without the expensive cost of traditional advertising and marketing. But what about when public relations goes horribly wrong? When the brand or business becomes the subject of countless Facebook posts, tweets, late night parodies, and negative press all over the globe—it’s time for major damage control.

It’s been a dreadful couple of weeks for garment workers and fashion retailers. There was a glimmer of joy this week when Bangladesh rescuers found a survivor 17 days after a garment factory collapsed and killed more than 1,000 workers.

Then last week, teen idol retailer Abercrombie & Fitch stirred up a social media controversy when CEO Mike Jeffries confessed A & F would never make sizes XL for women because the brand is targeted toward “the cool kids”.

The outrage directed at Abercrombie & Fitch was swift and immediate. It didn’t matter that the remarks were made 7 years ago and only brought to light again by an article on Business Insider from May 3, 2013.

In the Bangladesh building collapse, the Western world was forced to confront the ugly truth of where their high-priced, often low-quality clothing purchases come from—third-world countries with little to no regulation on worker conditions, building codes, and human rights violations that would make any North American employee gasp with horror.

Social media was once again only too excited to act as judge, jury, and executioner calling for boycotts of the involved retailers and vowing to never shop at these stores again. But the question we should be asking as PR professionals is, “How much does this backlash from the public actually affect the profitability of these companies in the long-run?

The Abercrombie & Fitch debacle is still going strong. Its had a long life (digitally speaking) where topics can turnover within hours. But more than one week later and blogs, news outlets, and magazines are still posting reactions, commentary and insight into what Mike Jeffries’ comments really say about our culture and society as a whole. Now that’s a story—7 years old, mind you—that has some legs.

In the case of the building collapse in Bangladesh, CEO Galen Weston III of Loblaws was “troubled by the deafening silence from other apparel retailers on this.” According to a story published by the CBC, Weston said Loblaw has always ensured all facilities in its supply chain adhere to rigorous standards in areas including local labour laws and work conditions. Surely these retailers know they have not moved manufacturing to countries like Bangladesh because the conditions and pay equity are as generous as those found in North America. On the contrary, they are there to maximize profits. And maximizing profits means cutting costs.

And what of companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch who spoke in a brutally honest manner about the prime consumer they tend to court with their products, marketing, and advertising? They have sketched out a picture of what that consumer look like, what the employee who attracts that consumer has to look like, and they know they don’t want to appeal to the broad masses. Every successful brand or business knows not “everyone” is their target customer. But the crass way Jeffries described A & F market segmentation was disturbing, bordering on cruel.

These incidents highlight some of the worst PR stories for fashion retailers in recent weeks. But we have to ask if these displays of brand behaviour will cause any major upset of the business’ financial performance. Does social media outrage equal brand change? Does social media outcry result in policy changes and/or an audit of current business practices?

It’s interesting to note that during the social media firestorm, A & F stock received an upgrade from Wells Fargo analyst Paul Lejuez. Even as the social media masses were calling for boycott’s and tweeting, posting, and blogging about they would never shop in A & F (though it remains questionable if this same segment were A & F regulars prior to this negative press) Abercrombie was up 6.5% in Tuesday, May 7 afternoon trading, at just over $52 a share.

What Can Be Done?

In light of the Bangladesh tragedy, Loblaw CEO Galen Weston III is vowing to stay in the country with the goals of improving the overall working conditions. Weston believes staying in Bangladesh and advocating for better working conditions and building codes is the answer. He is right from a public relations perspective. These countries rely on the infusion of work and income from foreign companies to provide livelihood for many people and their families.

With Abercrombie & Fitch, the future of the company remains to be seen. Will they actually lose market share or will they gain a more ardent following for touting their belief in exclusivity and will the “cool kids” reward this cringe-worthy clique?

Perhaps the answer lies in a recent PR snag that plagued Disney this Mother’s Day weekend. Pixar’s Brave heroine Merida was designated an official Disney princess May 11. Along with this Disney honour however came a makeover for dear Merida. But the moms and daughters (and dads too!) of Disney and the social sphere were having none of it. An official petition was started to request Disney leave Merida intact in her original, mold-breaking, stereotype-defying form. The petition has already gathered 100,000 signatures and is growing by all accounts. Even the director of the animated film was shocked and dismayed at Merida’s makeover. As of publishing this article, it would appear Disney has heeded this backlash and kept Merida as she first appeared to her legions of fans—fierce, fearless, and brave.

The answer then falls to the consumer who will vote with his/her dollars. Consumers must be the ones to decide which companies they will support and which ones they will drive to change by altering their spending habits. Competition is good because it allows consumers to exercise choice and not be swayed. Yes, public relations is there to influence, convince, and persuade. But ultimately brands will listen to where the wallet share is highest. As consumers, we all need to start demanding better and understanding the collective voice does have the power to drive lasting and meaningful change for good.

Susie Parker
With more than 20 years experience in restaurant, retail, education and health care industries Susie Erjavec Parker launched SPARKER Strategy Group to bring businesses up-to-speed on how to integrate social media. SPARKER Strategy Group specializes in the intersection of traditional and digital/social marketing and PR. As a specialty marketer to women and families, Parker also serves as a business coach to mompreneurs and women business owners. Susie is the founder of WIN: Women | Influence | Networking—a budding networking group that promotes and connects female entrepreneurs and their businesses with referrals and recommendations. She is a Starbucks addict and often experiences “ghost vibrations” in her back right pocket--even as she is talking on her iPhone.
Susie Parker

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