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Mini Roundup of 2013 PR Disasters

This post isn’t about passing judgement. It’s about teachable moments. Remember these cautionary tales in 2014, as you navigate the wild ride that is Public Relations.


Abercrombie & Fitch has had a steady stream of public relations challenges throughout 2013 and even earlier. They’ve been criticized for ignoring the plus-size market, burning damaged clothing instead of donating it, selling a shirt that pokes fun at Taylor Swift, and asking Jersey Shore cast members to cease wearing their gear, just to name a few of the most talked-about examples. The crowning jewel of A & F’s ongoing public relations face-saving, however, is the following quote from CEO Michael Jefferies:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

Although this pesky quote was originally published in 2006 it has continued to circulate and rub people the wrong way (obviously). There are multiple petitions lobbying against A&F – one of which has received over 80,000 signatures, but that’s not all! The hardest PR blow delivered to Abercrombie in 2013 was a reactionary campaign called “Fitch the Homeless”. In trying to shake up, or redefine the cultural value and “prestige” associated with the brand, as described in Jefferies’ quote, a disenchanted filmmaker named Greg Karber gave homeless people A & F clothing, videotaped it, YouTubed-it aaaand it went viral. The whole #FitchTheHomeless campaign itself then received negative feedback. Ahh the circle of life.


Exhibit A: the offending tweet that spurred serious PR efforts from Home Depot. “Serious” as in, they issued nearly 80 apology-tweets after people accused them of being racist.

It seems to me like the person responsible for the tweet was genuinely unaware or naïve and did not intend for their message to offend people – or maybe I’m the naïve one? – but reality spares no one and regardless of the offending Tweeter’s intentions, people were outraged and suddenly Home Depot was presented with a very real public relations problem that had potential to spiral into a huge crisis. Home Depot was swift to action – deleting the tweet and issuing multiple apologies, in addition to firing the agency AND the employee responsible for this social media misstep.


Picture this: you’re part of the public relations department for Barilla Pasta and your CEO and chairman says the following during an on-air radio show: “I would never do an advert with a homosexual family…If the gays don’t like it they can go and eat another brand.”

Yeah, that’s basically it. No analysis or commentary needed. Hateful, derogatory and exclusionary comments such as this are obviously not going to help a brand’s public relations. Ever. Hopefully the 21% net profit loss and worldwide boycott the brand has endured post-incident has helped the CEO understand this.

The above examples make a few points clear:
•    Think critically about your message before making it public – if anyone can even remotely make the case for it being offensive, find a way to re-word it to minimize the potential controversy, or more simply: don’t say it! (If you must get the message out, have a crisis communications plan in place.)
•    Brand representatives should receive thorough media training prior to interviews.
•    Develop a social media policy or guideline document that clearly outlines your brand’s social media management expectations (e.g., defining appropriate and inappropriate uses, potential consequences of misuse, etc.)

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