A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Feb 23, 2019

J'Accuse! - How Brands Are Learning To Defuse Social Media-Driven Outrage

Every aspect of the supply and finance chain - from design to production to sales to advertising - is open to scrutiny and criticism.

The speed of the response required demands specialists in crisis management who understand the motives of the accusers, the potential damage to the brand and the crafting of the appropriate response. JL 

Sara Germano reports in the Wall Street Journal:

(There has been) a sharp rise in corporate boards instituting reputation-risk modeling. A part of the crisis-management equation lies judgment about when criticism should be acknowledged, products pulled and apologies issued and when a hands-off approach is warranted. "Everyone needs to look at how things are produced and designed." The increasing speed at which controversy propagates has forced (brands) to acknowledge, apologize, and investigate. "The longer you wait, the longer it takes to shape the perception of the public.”
If it feels like there is a steady stream of fresh outrage over consumer-brand gaffes, it may be because companies have become more adept at managing controversy than at pre-empting it.
Over the past year, H&M , Adidas, Reebok, Mercedes-Benz, and many others have faced swift backlash for offensive products or ads. As the reach of social media amplifies brand missteps, companies are finding they must develop new tools to handle the fallout from global online criticism.
“The smallest wrinkles get written about today. Before, if a small outlet wrote about something, we might say, ‘maybe no one will pick it up,’” said Risa Heller, chief executive of public affairs firm Risa Heller Communications. “But now, one photo can ricochet around the internet in two seconds.”
Corporate executives and communications experts say that the increasing speed at which controversy propagates has forced them to perfect the three-pronged rapid response: acknowledge, apologize, and investigate.
“Today you have to react within the first half hour, that’s what we call the ‘window of opportunity,’” said Christian Lawrence, partner at Brunswick Group, which handles crisis communications. “If you ignore something for half an hour, the longer you wait, the longer it takes to shape the perception of the public.”
What comes next can range from lying low to overhauling executive management.
A year after H&M apologized for releasing a children’s hoodie sporting the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle” modeled by a black child, the company has established a new diversity and inclusion team with members in the U.S. and Europe. Ezinne Kwubiri, the company’s first such executive for North America, said that H&M has reconfigured its quality-control processes, making sure products are reviewed by people in multiple departments.
“Everyone in all industries, especially retail, needs to pause for a second and look at how things are produced,” Ms. Kwubiri said, adding that the Sweden-based fast-fashion giant still designs most of its products in Europe and Asia. “We need to take a bit more time in how things are designed, if it’s not adding extra eyes to the process, it’s diversifying the eyes looking at the product.”
The pre-emptive approach to avoiding blunders is still relatively new. Mark Palmer, who was senior vice president of public relations at Enron throughout its financial accounting scandal and bankruptcy and is now a partner at Brunswick Group, said he has seen a sharp rise over the past three to four years in corporate boards instituting reputation-risk modeling, particularly for companies that operate outside of heavily regulated industries where the practice is standard.
A big part of the crisis-management equation lies in striking a judgment about when criticism should be acknowledged, products pulled and apologies issued and when a more hands-off approach is warranted.
“There is the question of, ‘Should we be more rigorous?’” when it comes to product vetting, according to one communications executive who has handled several crises. “But with social media, it blows up and goes away very quickly. Don’t overreact to two days of complaints.”
For all the noise, mass-market brands rarely see outrage turn into lasting reputational damage or sales slumps.
A year ago, Mercedes-Benz caused a firestorm in China after a company Instagram post quoted the Dalai Lama, considered by Beijing to be a separatist. The luxury unit of Daimler AG apologized for the “deeply hurt feelings of the Chinese people and also our colleagues who work in China.”
Nonetheless, sales of Mercedes cars rose 12.9% in the Asia-Pacific region in February 2018 from the previous year, and the brand’s sales have grown on an annual basis for 14 consecutive years in the region, according to the company.

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Nike Inc. sparked intense division with an advertisement released in September featuring National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, hailed by some for holding to his stance against racial injustice, and criticized by others for kneeling on the field during the national anthem. Shares in the company sank the day the advertisement was unveiled, but Nike sales rose 10% in the quarter following its release.
Even for companies trumpeting progressive marketing messages to global consumers, the meaning can sometimes get lost in translation.
In February, sportswear maker Reebok launched the Russian edition of its world-wide marketing campaign for women’s products, “promoting values of strength, freedom, self-expression and equality.” One such Russian ad, featuring a woman kneeling in workout apparel, quickly removed its tag line: “Move from the pressure of man’s approval to a man’s face,” which some viewed as having sexual overtones.
Reebok pulled the offending spot and issued a statement, saying, “We are a global company and unfortunately, within such a large infrastructure across different markets, sometimes processes can break down. In this case, certain checks and balances were not completed.”
Kristen Moss, a Reebok spokeswoman, said the Russian copywriting team misinterpreted the intended message of the global campaign.

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