When responding to allegations of racism, you’re already behind

Luxury brands are running afoul of consumers with products that inflame racial tensions, forcing quick apologies. How can you protect your business from similar mistakes?

In today’s marketplace of ideas, if you put out a product that appears racist, you are going to “earn” some media.

If you believe the old saw “all media coverage is good media coverage,” offending your market base and having to pull a product you already paid to manufacture and ship might “work” for you. However, if you believe in developing a positive customer relationship and nurturing your buyers into engaged fans, you may want to avoid enraging them.

Otherwise, you might end up spending up all your earned media time apologizing.

Gucci was recently forced to walk back a product release after one of its newest items was shown to have blatant racist messaging. The item, a black balaclava sweater came with a “collar” that extended up to cover half the face. In the middle of this collar was a red-rimmed slit, which, when worn, appeared to be lips.

Almost as soon as the item image popped up online, Gucci fans revolted. The public outcry was so fierce and so universal, that Gucci was forced to immediately apologize. The company also pulled the garment off store shelves and websites. To the public, Gucci said the incident offered a “powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.”

What exactly is being conveyed here? That Gucci views this as an object lesson for everyone? It’s not a good choice of message, because the question is not “what can we all learn?” The question customers are asking is: “What were you thinking!” They are still asking, and Gucci has failed to answer the question.

Their response is far from unique.

Another luxury fashion brand, Prada, had to apologize last December for marketing a purse with a “monkey” that clearly evoked blackface. Prada told offended consumers that the company “abhors racist imagery” before pulling the product.

Dolce & Gabbana also had to issue a video apology after one of the company’s designers insulted Chinese people. In this case, the remarks were made in a private chat, but as has been established time and time again—if it’s online, it’s not private.

The company was forced to cancel a Shanghai runway show after the insulting comments were made public, which was only the beginning of the backlash. Asian promoters and influencers dropped campaigns and some Chinese websites blacklisted the brand.

Some in the fashion industry have characterized the brands’ choices honest mistakes, and saying they probably did not mean to be racist. For consumers, however, meaning well is not enough. From a PR perspective, one of the first questions that must be asked is “How will this be perceived?”

When you fail to answer that question accurately, there can be serious financial consequences.

Ronn Torossian is CEO of NYC based PR firm 5WPR.

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