Tag Archives: social media crisis

Lululemon’s crisis points us in the wrong direction

Jonathan Bernstein’s blog post on the Lululemon double crisis (sheer pants then a bad Bloomberg interview, followed by a rather pathetic “apology” video, caused me to look closer at the videos.

The Bloomberg interview which aired Nov 5 had Chip Wilson and Shannon Wilson, founders of Lululemon discussing the problems they have had with sheer yoga pants.

That was followed by an apology video posted on YouTube in which Chip Wilson accepts responsibility for the fray that followed.

What happened? The Bloomberg interviewer asked about pilling. And Chip Wilson (with a very anxious looking Shannon looking on) explained that like a lot of other problems, seatbelts for example, what happens with pants has to do with the woman wearing them and the kind of bodies they have. He referred to thighs rubbing together. OK, now Bloomberg has something juicy, so they headline the interview thusly: “Lululemon Pants Don’t Work for Some Women: Founder.”

And then the sh-storm began. The storm that led to the rather pathetic apology on YouTube.

It’s a crisis, and not a very effective response. But, overall my reaction is different. Mr. Wilson spoke the truth. Those super tight fitting yoga pants are not for every woman. What?! I can’t say that on the Internet! We’re supposed to pretend there are no differences and a company making pants should be egalitarian. Give me a break! This “crisis” isn’t about Lululemon, Chip Wilson or even ill-thought comments. This crisis is about our society and its prickliness, hyper-sensitivity, offensibility, intolerance in the name of pluralism and non-discrimination. Someone looking at this rationally would say its the society in crisis and not the company who doesn’t make yoga pants for every woman and a founder who would have the integrity to express that on TV.

Sure, some are going to be offended. Hey, if your thighs rub together a lot, then these pants are going to pill and you should probably look at something else–maybe like jeans. But, we can’t say that can we. Not with the Internet. Not with a TV channel that will take your words, meant to explain and be helpful, and turn them into a headline sure to cause outrage.

The truth is Chip Wilson should not be doing interviews, nor should he do YouTube videos. He’s too honest. Bernstein would have him in his interview be more apologetic rather than asking his employees (whom he acknowledged he hurt by his comments) to be above the fray. Here he is being honest and authentic again. Apologize for what? Speaking the truth? For causing the fracas? Why, when it is the hypersensitive fed by an outrage seeking media that caused it?

The truth is that is the world we live in and Chip Wilson lives in. It is a crisis, a crisis that could have been averted by being less honest, less forthright, less transparent than Mr. Wilson. I hate to say this, God I hate to say this, but Lululemon needed a spinner on that interview. One that would have stuck to the talking points. Who would have diverted the question by saying: we continually look for ways to improve our product so that all women of every shape and size can enjoy our superior pants. It wouldn’t be true, honest or transparent, but it would not have caused the storm.

And if the apology was needed, Mr. Wilson should have had a script and practiced and practiced it, rather than going off rather like he was just getting over a serious bout of grief. He should have said, “I am so sorry, sorry that I misspoke and offended women across this country. We of course are working harder than ever to make the best possible pants for all women regardless of how much their thighs rub together.” No, he shouldn’t have. Because he couldn’t in all honesty. And I do get the sense that honesty, transparency and integrity are important to him.

So many crises these days are a result of not thinking through how the loud, prickly, hypersensitive voices will dominate the conversation. Far too many are created by the outrage seeking irresponsibility of media–fanning the flames for their own profits. I can decry it, and I do. But it is our reality and one we must live in.

I suspect Mr. Wilson has learned that lesson. Next time, we will see someone capable of meeting these expectations more effectively.



Training for social media crises can create social media crises

Let’s face it, almost anything we do these days seems to be able to go bad when exposed to the whole world. As I’ve said many times before, social media and digital communications is a two-edged sword: a more powerful tool than ever before to deal with crises and a whole raft of new crisis vulnerabilities.

Take University of Michigan athletics for example. They decided to do some training for their athletes about the dangers of social media. Understandable. It’s clear that many, and its seems especially younger users, often don’t think about the potentials when they tweet or Facebook something. With the Mant Te’o fiasco at Notre Dame, every university administrator must have had cold chills thinking about how the reputation of their institution rested on the wisdom of 18 year olds and what they put on their social media sites. So UofM did some training.

They used their outside contractor to friend or follow the athletes. Then, confronted the athletes with what they discovered on their sites. Some of it apparently was not what the athletes wanted anyone associated with the University to see. However, a blogger heard a presentation by the athletic director and seems to have misunderstood the training. He tweeted and wrote a blog post that said UofM was “catfishing” its own students. I had never heard of catfishing until Manti Te’o showed up. Apparently it is common. Catfishing is when someone on social media pretends to be someone they are not. Social media makes this rather easy. ESPN picked up the blogger’s report and put out a news story that UofM was catfishing its own students.

PLEASE NOTE: social media crises often start when someone says something stupid or wrong on social media and the mainstream media pick it up, and without verifying, amplify it to their audience, often with extra juice intended to attract audiences, which then goes viral and the whole world (including me) starts talking about it.

ESPN got it wrong, the blogger got it wrong. No catfishing, said the university. Just checking up on what their athletes are saying and doing on social media.

But, it got me thinking. I’ve been looking at a powerful tool for conducting social media training exercises developed and offered by one of the top PR firms in the world. (More about that tool later as I delve into this a bit more). But, it occurred to me what risks there might be in conducting drills and exercises. I have warned clients more than once that when they do their risk or vulnerability assessment, including ranking them, be aware of what that will look like when an event happens and attorneys require all their documentation. “Ah, they knew just such a thing would happen and did nothing about it.” These were headlines coming out of the Superdome power outage fiasco. That is one great danger. But merely trying to prepare your organization for big problems, such as product contamination, or an oil spill, can be twisted and turned into nastiness.

Here’s something I’m considering adding to the vulnerability lists of clients: Negative media reports and social media attacks for the training and preparation you are doing to deal with negative media reports and social media attacks.

This world gets stranger and stranger.

Scary thought for consultants: are crises overblown?

There’s quite a group of people like me who make a living, or try to, by telling CEO-types that “they better prepare” because “now is too late.” The underlying and compelling reason is that a major crisis is a big deal, maybe even life or death for the corporation. But, this Wall Street Journal article poses an interesting and potentially disturbing question: are these new kind of social media-driven crises not really such a big deal? Do they really have any lasting impact on the share price, bottom-line an organization future?

The article traces the story of three recent reputation crises which would fit in the category of serious. But, it shows that the impact of these events was very short-lived and with little to no apparent damage to brand value, share price or profits. One of the organizations highlighted is Goldman Sachs which has become a favorite whipping boy of the media in the last while with little apparent impact on the company’s future or performance.

The writer of the article also asks a number of PR professionals what they think of these short-lived events. “Puzzled by such sanguine attitudes, I asked PR experts for an explanation. Their answers can be grouped in three categories: “the shiny object,” “the loyalty issue” and “the lack of choice.””

Personally, I have felt for some time that the recent changes mean several things:

– much increased vulnerability because of how the digital lynch mob can operate (thanks Geoff for that descriptive term)
– much faster response required because of the light speed of the hyper-networked
– much faster cycle from germination, to full bloom, to the leaves dropping harmlessly
– potentially lower impact because of the sheer volume of these (see increased vulnerability) and the weariness and loss of attention span caused by the volume and frequency.

There are other important factors highlighted by the PR pros. One is loyalty, the other is the growing realization that the digital lynch mob is not the whole world (see my post on Komen Foundation where I think most PR analysts completely missed this point). But the biggest difference to me is engagement. Pre-engagement with key stakeholders. This is becoming my new mantra but I think it is critical. If you talk to the people who matter, and a lot of them at that, on an on-going basis, then when it hits the fan, you can just keep talking. You either say: we screwed up and we’re sorry and we’re fixing it, or the lynch mob has it wrong and here’s why, or the media’s not telling the truth and here’s why.

This ability to just step up and on-going conversation is one big reason why I think a lot of the flutter than happens on the Internet and media with these kinds of issues just won’t be such a big deal. But, if your only way of talking to the people who really matter is through the media by pushing out a press release or two, hang on for a longer and much bumpier ride.

A Post Script re Pink Slime.

The pink slime crisis sort of gives lie to the above issue of crises not having such a great impact. BPI certainly wouldn’t say that as it fights for its life. Another producer of the beef product, just filed for bankruptcy.

Groupon, Kenneth Cole–politics, ads, tweeting CEOs and other things that create crises

What do Kenneth Cole and Groupon have in common? Both stirred up major controversies through politically insensitive advertising. So the questions raised here are: Why are politically tinged ads so dangerous? Do advertising departments check with PR departments before launching like they do legal departments? And, is this kind of thing just a way to get any publicity?

First, Kenneth Cole. You probably know he (yes, he as in Kenneth Cole himself) attempted to use a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mass protests in Cairo to promote his spring fashion collection. The protest he received via social media, while not quite up to the Tahrir Square standard, was loud and vigorous.

Then there is Groupon and their ill-advised Superbowl ad that highlighted the plight of Tibetans. While decrying the fate of the Tibetans and their loss of culture, Tim Hutton says happily that they still “whip up an amazing fish curry.” Not sure the ad people or Groupon executives (probably 18 year olds if social media entrepreneurship holds to form) thought much about how the Tibetans would react to this, let alone the Chinese which represents a pretty substantial potential market for the coupon service. Well, at least they did.

A few quick lessons for crisis communicators and PR heads:

1) Your CEO can cause you some real problems–be careful about telling him/her about Twitter. Pretty hard to enforce good judgment in using social media among your employees when your CEO or “chief creative officer” does this. I think it might be good advice for senior executives to maybe run their social media promotion ideas by a few others in the organization before pushing the “submit” button.

2) The social media world is a very sensitive place. This may be the more important lesson. Now, I will say that I think both of these attempts at marketing showed poor judgment. But, it is also true when what you do or say is instantly visible to thousands or millions, its pretty hard not to offend someone. Especially if you are going to venture into politics in any way. I certainly learned this in my own business and even though, like most, I am politically interested, I tend to try to stay pretty neutral on political issues here. No sense having someone hit the delete button just ’cause they don’t like my stand on a hot issue. Personally, I don’t like this excessive sensitivity. I think it stands in the way of creativity, free expression, learning from each other and making the world a better place. But I’m not going to change that, so from a crisis management standpoint, it is just better to realize that you want to play with politics in your marketing, you are most likely going to tick someone off–and that can snowball rapidly in the networked world.

3) Are these really crises, or just the new form of marketing? This is perhaps are more challenging and troubling question. Admittedly, marketers face the challenge of getting attention in a saturated world. It is difficult. It’s always worked to push the edges of what is acceptable. The truth is that Kenneth Cole’s twitter account saw a dramatic increase in followers. He did quickly apologize and now he has all those new followers. Groupon’s mistake may be more significant because the Chinese government does run a country, a pretty big country last time I checked, and you tick them off and it doesn’t do much for your business prospects.  But when is bad publicity good business? When does a “crisis” help marketers cut through the clutter?

Might this mean that crisis communication consultants will be brought in to a proposed marketing campaign not just to kill a potentially inflammatory tweet or ad, but to help plan how to first create the crisis, then apologize and recover from it?

I hope not.