The latest Gillette campaign controversy aside, no firm wants to be the first to lodge a major public relations debacle on the fresh snow of 2019. Fortunately, there is plenty to be learned from last year: here’s the four biggest corporate PR disasters from 2018.
1. H&M emblazoned “monkey” on a black child model
As visuals go, this wasn’t a great one for the clothing retailer. Wearing a hoodie claiming to be the “coolest monkey in the jungle”, the photo of a black child model spread quickly on social media amid almost universal outrage, drawing attention to the product for all the wrong reasons. To be fair to H&M, the company was quick to apologize, and pulled the product from shelves. Still, the lesson from this disaster is clear: in a multicultural marketplace, a diverse team is needed to properly vet your firm’s messages and images for offense.
2. Victoria’s Secret Diversity Blunder
“We attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes,” Victoria’s Secret chief marketing officer Ed Razek told Vogue magazine, “No one had any interest in it, still don’t.”
Digging even deeper, he also claimed: “We’ve had transgender models come to castings. … And like many others, they didn’t make it. … But it was never about gender. I admire and respect their journey to embrace who they really are.”
Razek’s comments drew the ire of the online community and the resignation of the firm’s head of lingerie, Jan Singer. Again, the message is clear: diversity is in, body shaming is out.
3. Under Armour Throws the Wrong Parties
Earlier in the year, the athletics firm emailed staffers that they would not longer be allowed to put strip-club visits on their corporate credit cards, following reports that executives and employees had- for years- entertained athletes and coworkers at strip clubs following corporate and sporting events.
Under Armour was clearly right to end the practice, but the fact that it had been allowed to take place as late as 2018 was not well-received by the public.
This is also an issue of diversity: “to keep the playing field level,” says Laura Liswood, diversity author, “the skilled manager needs to find ways to learn about the other members of the team so that an equal level of comfort and knowledge exists with the people who aren’t naturally like you.”
4. Facebook’s Data Breach- and Ensuing Silence
When it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed information on millions of people, the internet was appalled. When it became known that Facebook had known for three years, and chose to keep mum, the internet community exploded.
In the aftermath, the social media giant made misstep after misstep, with Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg refraining from issuing an immediate statement to the firm hiring a research consultant to investigate its critics.
When a crisis strikes, as it almost inevitably does for all firms, transparency and disclosure is key. In the age of the internet, everything becomes known eventually: better to fess up, and try to guide the narrative.