E-commerce clothing brand Shein took a group of diverse influencers to Guangzhou, China in June. What was meant to be a standard press tour went awry when people reacted negatively to the social posts about the trip, NPR reported. Shein invited the group to see its Innovation Center, where some clothes are manufactured and sent to warehouses. It didn’t go well when the influencers subsequently hyped up their adventures and experiences at the appealing Innovation Center and reported that workers told them that they worked in good conditions.
“Upon interviewing the workers, a lot of them were really confused and taken back with the child labor questions and the lead-in-the-clothing questions,” Destene Sudduth, a social media influencer posted on TikTok. “They weren’t even sweating. We were the ones sweating.”
Many of the influencers’ followers were upset because the Innovation Center does not accurately portray what really happens in factories, according to reports.
The company is still reeling from the backlash.
Morning Consult reported that Shein’s net favorability dropped 20 points year in year, possibly in part due to the response to the trip.
In an article from The Cut, a Shein rep attempted to smooth ruffled feathers.
The unnamed representative said that “social-media videos and commentary are authentic, and we respect each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience. We look forward to continuing to provide more transparency around our on-demand business model and operations.”
The trip backfired on Shein because they misrepresented how the brand operates in an attempt to gloss over unsettling claims about worker mistreatment, resulting in this backlash, Jessica Doyle, founder, principal and fractional CCO at Two Creeks Strategies, told PR Daily. Doyle said that Shein’s disastrous publicity stunt was bound to get the responses that it did from the public.
“I think that this was a very likely outcome,” Doyle said. “If this is authentically the way it’s operated, it is not a bad idea. But you have to be truthful in advertising and this is advertising. Influencers are a form of advertising. Companies have great intentions, but they have to be intentional in the thought process of what it is you stand for and make the connection back to your business and build from there.”
Doyle added that controlling a brand’s narrative during a crisis means ensuring the public’s focus goes back to a company’s values and expressing how you plan to show up better than the day before.
And you’ve got to mean it.
“I think that in the rush to appear values-driven, some companies have fallen into the trap of putting forward initiatives that can appear value washing and that does more damage to your company than it does help,” Doyle said. “Because if it is inauthentic if it is not credible, you hurt your authenticity with your customers, you hurt your credibility with your customers and you put your company at risk. And in some cases, you’ve put your employees at risk.”
Doyle said that even the most public brand blunder like Shein’s doesn’t have to be a PR nightmare. As long as effective comms are in place and measures are taken to weigh out all possible scenarios of crises, including obvious ones.
“Often a crisis comms’ best work is the story no one ever sees,” Doyle said. “Every public statement has to pass the sniff test.”
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