Whether you are a business pushing out an edgy ad campaign, or one with an unsolicited media crisis on your hands, in the age of the Internet you are just keystrokes away from things going “viral”. It is important to be prepared.
Like many bad ideas, it started innocuously enough. In late November, Dolce & Gabbana uploaded a series of videos on its social media platforms that starred a young Chinese woman wearing a red sequin dress. She was seen struggling to eat a variety of Italian dishes using her chopsticks. Meanwhile, in the voiceover, a man could be heard dishing out patronising instructions on the usage of the utensils alongside sexual innuendoes – was the Italian cannoli too large for the Chinese to manage? In an added insult to the Middle Kingdom, he mispronounced the name of the luxury label, poking fun at the lack of cosmopolitan awareness of the world’s latest arriviste power.
The three films were intended to publicise what was to have been the fashion giant’s biggest show in Shanghai ever. Instead, all they achieved was to ruffle the feathers of the very audience to which they were supposed to appeal.
As public backlash grew, the tone-deaf commercials were pulled from the company’s Weibo account. But things started to truly malicious when its co-founder Stefano Gabbana responded on Instagram to a blogger’s complaint with a quintet of faeces emojis and the words “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia” to describe the country and its people.
“The Great Show” was cancelled amid the calls for a catwalk boycott, while retailers – in China and across the world – pulled Dolce & Gabbana products off their shelves. An overdue apology arrived after a ham-fisted claim that Gabbana’s photo sharing account had been hacked failed to work, but by then it was too little too late. The online fashion business website WWD estimated that the controversy could potentially cost the brand 400 million euros in lost sales in China alone.
One would think that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana would have, by now, become savvy at handling such mis-steps. After all, Chopsticks-gate is just the latest in a series of gaffes by the duo: in the past, they have sold “Slave” sandals; shamed and trolled Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga and the Kardashians (while brown-nosing Melania Trump); called babies conceived through IVF “synthetic”; and accused women who objected to their “Thin & Gorgeous” sneakers of “lov(ing) to be fat and full of cholesterol”. These were all controversies from which the brand recovered, arguably strengthening its bete noireimage. But in thinking that the Chinese would be able to laugh at themselves, it had heavily miscalculated the psychology of the ascendant economic powerhouse, a market that accounts for a third of its sales.
PR gaffes are not limited to the enfants terribles of the fashion world in their envelope-pushing advertising. Sometimes crises can occur without a media campaign, as a top London City firm discovered when lawyers from a rival (and neighbouring) firm filmed one if its partners watching porn on his office computer in broad daylight. The partner, who remained unnamed, was swiftly suspended from duty, and an internal investigation mounted. More than the deplorable Internet activity and abysmal judgement exhibited by the member in question, the law practice will need to consider if any client confidentiality has been breached.
There are several lessons to be learnt from these episodes.
In January 2018, H&M uploaded onto its e-commerce site a photo of a black child, wearing a hoodie with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on it. Like wildfire, the news of the racist image spread across the globe, culminating in its South African stores being looted by an angry mob.
H&M’s response was swift and decisive. Not only did the Swedish fast-fashion company issue a statement that contained the right words “unequivocal apology” and “poorly judged product and image”, it also appointed its first-ever “Diversity Leader”. The woman of colour is tasked to ensure that the company is aware of all racial and cultural sensitivities to avoid a repeat of the incident.
In marketing and communications, it is not a matter of if you would make a mistake – it is a matter of when. You could have misjudged your audience while pushing the boundaries in a cutting-edge ad campaign, or it could be a simple slip up such as a typo. Your customers are far more likely to forgive you if you promptly take ownership of your error, apologise with sincerity and take action to prevent future occurrences.
Kill them with kindness
Last year, McDonald’s attempted to capitalise on Rick and Morty’s popularity by re-releasing its limited-edition Szechuan sauce mentioned in the cult adult cartoon. Unfortunately, the fast-food chain massively underestimated the demand for the dip, leaving legions of fans fuming when they left empty-handed despite queuing for hours. McDonald’s social media team was inundated by irate comments. It was then that its manager of culinary innovation took to Facebook and Instagram to respond to the debacle, using humour and references from the animated programme to defuse the situation, while simultaneously promising to make things right.
When faced with a complaint, it is tempting to defend yourself, or worse, argue with the customer, especially if your team had invested a lot of resources on the product or campaign. Don’t. Instead, put yourself in the shoes of the customer – or better yet, connect with them. A little empathy goes a long way.
Craft a classy response
In the wake of the Dolce & Gabbana public relations disaster, Chinese broadcaster CCTV re-shared on Facebook a heart-warming Chinese New Year video from 2015 with the pithy blurb “Do you really understand chopsticks?”. The five-minute-long film showed a number of families across the world reuniting for the festival, with the eating utensils as its central theme. Within a week, the post received 1.2 million views and 26,000 shares.
Now, imagine if Dolce & Gabbana had done something similar – to celebrate rather than denigrate a culture much older than that of the brand’s founders, two cultures that share much of the same DNA in the importance of food and family. This was a missed opportunity, one that is – to quote the Internet – “Dead and Gone”.