Listen up, retail brands. Today, it means more than an unphotogenic sandal.
Fashion is supposed to be an art form. It’s supposed to be self-expression. It’s supposed to be escape.
But more and more, fashion holds a mirror to real life controversy in ways that can be painful and disturbing. Leaders in fashion and retail can’t expect “it’s fashion” to keep them above the fray.
Nothing has made this more evident than the startling reappearance of blackface, not just in the political arena. It’s appeared at Gucci and Prada in the form of clothing that presented blackface archetypes as fashion, justifiably sparking a firestorm of international controversy.
Even more recently, Gucci was in the news again for its appropriation of a Sikhs turban. “‘Did someone at Gucci even bother to figure out what a dastaar (turban) means to Sikhs? Did it cross your minds to consider the history behind our identity?” wrote @SouthernSikh on Twitter. “My people are discriminated against, even killed, for wearing a turban.’” (via The Guardian)
While hospitals, insurers, universities and other more traditional sectors might be more inclined to have a crisis plan in place, the fashion/retail industry should take these high-profile incidents as a call to look at how well they’re prepared for a crisis and equipped to respond with brand-right, effective messaging.
Predicting controversy is key to planning around it. And although fashion/retail may seem unpredictable, it’s not for those who’ve been in the business and are used to the cycles of in, out and back again.
Here are just a few of the fashion-relevant crises that we’ve either experienced ourselves in the ranks of fashion brands or could easily see happening in the not-too-distant future:
- A spokesperson, namesake or muse conducts themselves in a way that’s reprehensible.
- A photo shoot backdrop inadvertently contains offensive religious content.
- The discovery of improper treatment of employees and/or factory conditions (imagine how much worse this is when ethical manufacturing is part of the brand ethos).
- The discovery of improper handling of environmental issues in the factory.
- Issues around the use of fur and/or animal skin and product. (PETA recently launched an anti-wool campaign with the tagline, “Wool is Just as Cruel as Fur.”)
- Issues around mistreatment of or non-inclusion of a group in advertising based on size, shape, gender identity. (Victoria’s Secret CEO Ed Razek’s comments on transgender, LGBTQ and plus-sized models come to mind.)
- Issues around gender discrimination in ad campaigns.
- An outspoken designer’s inappropriate comments (e.g. John Galliano’s racist and anti-Semitic rants).
- The structural failure of merchandise, such as the “exploding” Nike basketball shoe worn by Duke’s Zion Williamson, viewed by many millions of consumers.
There’s nothing worse than a late-night call followed by a scramble to choose an approach and craft a response to a crisis situation. Especially in a wired, creative, right-now industry where social media is its very backbone and news travels faster than the rise of a hemline or a heel.
It can be tempting to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to something that doesn’t impact the bottom line as readily as, say, an influencer partnership or a promotional campaign. But it’s much better to predict, plan and update on a regular basis so that when an issue does arise, it doesn’t mean a big diversion from run of the business.
A good crisis plan will:
● Identify which company leaders will serve on the crisis team and what their roles and responsibilities will be. Everybody on the team should know exactly what is expected of them in a crisis.
● Sequence key internal and external communications, with step-by-step guidance for the first 24 to 48 hours.
● Identify which external resources you will need and include the emergency contact information for reaching them (crises seldom happen conveniently on Monday at 11 a.m.). These resources should include the legal team, public relations firm (and make sure they are experienced in crisis communications), banker, public insurance adjuster, and IT vendor. A credit line should always be in place as well, because you won’t necessarily be able to establish one during a crisis.
● Draft media holding statements for different contingencies and include them in the plan.
● Establish a social media protocol, messaging and policy, and assign responsibility for updating social media as well as monitoring the online chatter about your company.
● Include messaging and a plan for briefing the customer relations staff (often located in another state for larger retailers).
The plan, however, is only as good as the people who will ultimately use it, which is why frequent discussions and drills on crisis handling are important.
“Predictable” may be a dirty word in fashion. It shouldn’t be. Let the style be the unexpected part.
Rachel Solomon is the founder of Honor Code Creative, a content, branding, and creative firm with deep roots in fashion with travel to Boston, New York City and Miami. David A. Ball is the president of Ball Consulting Group, LLC, a strategic communications firm in Newton, Mass. We work together on strategic messaging for brands, and you can contact either of us to get things started.