What can past PR Crises teach us about planning for future snafus?


By   |   June 20th, 2019   |   Reading time: 6 minutes Brands, Communications & PR

PR Measurement, Social Media Analytics

Is your company prepared for a crisis? What measures do you have in place to repair trust once a crisis inevitably happens? We took a look at the past three years and identified some key moments brands could learn from.

At a panel we held earlier this year, we heard from Gregory Young, SVP of Integrated Communications Planning at Weber Shandwick, who emphasized that in order to be worthwhile, brand values must be clear and espoused early on. When your brand is inevitably in trouble, “at the end of the day, you need to control your story or else you’re going to let someone else control it for you.”

One company that has been controlling their own narrative despite a rough year is beauty retailer: Sephora. Sephora has received a lot of media coverage since the beginning of 2019 for various crises.

The most engaged one came in the wake of the college admissions scandal, where Sephora dropped Lori Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, after facing significant backlash. A few months later, they were the focus of the media again when SZA tweeted that she was racially profiled at their Calabasas, California location.

Sephora quickly apologized directly to her and promised its customers they would remedy the situation. If that weren’t enough, comedian Leslie Jones then also called them out for mistreating her makeup artist a few weeks later and by June 6, they had closed down all of their stores for diversity training. While it seemed coverage of SZA had blown up, even prompting Rihanna to send her a gift card to her own Fenty Beauty brand, relative to other crises handling racism as a brand, this was a mere drop in the bucket, as we will see later.

Sephora’s PR Crises in 2019

The coverage of the college admissions scandal (blue) was far and away the most engaged story about Sephora this year. SZA’s tweet prompted stories to break in April (pink) and then coverage of the store closure reached its peak in June (yellow). Sephora had already committed to diversity as a core value, put together an incredibly diverse team of influencers for the next year, and was working on their “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign a year prior to the crises. They were equipped to handle it and their workshop received renewed engagement because of the crisis immediately proceeding it.

Brand crises around racial discrimination

In that vein, the past three years has seen the likes of Starbucks, Airbnb, Dove, H&M, Gucci, and more on the public shaming block for racial discrimination or inappropriate designs. Halfway through 2019 isn’t the time to be considering what to say in the heat of a racially-charged crisis, if you don’t have brand values explicitly outlined and adhered to from corporate to product, you’re behind.

Let’s take a look at what the past three years can tell us about the timeline of a racially-charged crisis, and what other brands have done in response.

Major crises in 2017

The biggest crisis in 2017 was a Facebook ad beauty brand Dove promoted, depicting a black woman turning into a white woman after using a Dove product. In years prior, Dove had pretty much paved the way for being an inclusive, body-positive brand with memorable “real-beauty” ads. But following public outcry, they had to quickly issue an apology: the first stories covering the ad began on Oct. 2nd, and coverage didn’t start falling until the 8th. During that time, articles about the ad kept gaining traction and even the model cast in the ad spoke up. It was quickly pulled from Facebook and Dove tweeted their apologies.

Relatively speaking, of the top three crises in 2017, Dove received the most coverage and engagement. Other notable crises: An Airbnb host was banned for cancelling on a guest after finding out she was Asian and a video of racist tirades recorded at a Starbucks went viral. The spikes in coverage for both correspond with 1) the initial offense and 2) coverage of the respective company’s response. In the case of Airbnb, the host was fined $5,000 and the man screaming racial slurs in Starbucks was charged with a hate crime.

Major crises in 2018

While these events certainly caused a stir, the most engaged crisis in the past three years was H&M’s choice to put a black child model in a “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt. Peaking at just over 2.4 million interactions across networks, it got reactions from celebrities and journalists on Twitter alike, and H&M was dragged through the mud for it.

Starbucks came in a close second, with its announcement of store closures for racial-bias training. Dolce & Gabbana had to cancel a show near the end of 2018 due to a racist portrayal of a Chinese model in their ads and Prada got a peek into what crises 2019 had for them with one of their keychain designs that resembled blackface.

While Twitter had a heyday with H&M, publishers latched on to Starbucks’ attempt to address educating their staff on racial bias. Most of the highly engaged coverage even came from satirical sites like Huzlers and The Onion, poking fun at the reactions from the brands.

Major crises in 2019

And finally, halfway through 2019, it’s been a dense 6 months in terms of brands mucking up. January brought us Gucci, Katy Perry, and Prada blackface, and just in time for Black History Month, Adidas served up an all-white shoe. Relatively speaking, nothing came close to the coverage Gucci got and the brand pulled the sweater immediately, offering an apology on Twitter.

The two most recent crises, an Airbnb host going viral for calling her guests “monkeys” and kicking them out of the home and Sephora’s SZA kerfuffle was less engaged and dealt with quickly.

Most of the coverage for the Gucci, Prada, and Katy Perry snafus were grouped together, calling for fashion designers to pay attention to their products and hire diverse teams to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen. Prada’s response (or lack thereof) left fans upset, while Katy Perry pulled her shoes immediately and apologized.

When you live your life in their products, whether they be shoes or sweatshirts, or choose to use their makeup to express yourself, it’s especially offensive to see brands not consider your perspective or include people like you in the decision to make the products, or even try to remedy the insensitivity. Which explains why it seems like fashion and beauty crises hit much higher engagement numbers, often in the millions, despite other terrible things that go viral.

Brands can’t afford to wait for a crisis to happen anymore, it will. The onus is on the company to prevent the creation of crises, but social media will tell your story if you don’t. 

So what lessons can be learned from these brands?

  1. Define brand values clearly and early on
  2. Prioritize diversity and inclusion in products, casting models, and hiring decisions to avoid this in the future
  3. If (when) an incident occurs, apologize and respond quickly with authenticity, while listening to consumers to make the necessary changes

Want to better understand historical trends and benchmarking around crisis monitoring? Take a look at NewsWhip Analytics.

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