Oops, We Did it Again (and Again, and Again)

September 16, 2014  | By Catherine Seeds

We’ve all heard (or have perhaps said) in one way or another the expression, “I would love to have been a fly on the wall when….” On more than one occasion, I’ve often found myself wishing I could have been privy to certain conversations that led to decisions being made about this or that.  One of the many items on my bucket list, as my friends and co-workers know very well, is to sit in on a Saturday Night Live writer’s meeting and just take in all of the crazy creativity. Ah, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting!

But, as a PR professional, I would also love the ability to travel back in time and have the opportunity to observe and even participate in the meetings that have led to some of the most terrible PR blunders.  In recent months, major apparel brands have manufactured and tried to sell items that, for anyone with half a brain, would be received as offensive, tacky and downright unethical.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

  • Just this week, Urban Outfitters came under fire for selling a “vintage” Kent State University sweatshirt that included what appeared to be fake bloodstains – referencing the horrific events that took place at Kent State in 1970. The retailer quickly released an apology and explanation, “…the red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.” You’d think Urban Outfitters would have learned their lesson by now, after trying to sell a crop top shirt with the word “depression” written all over it, or the time they tried to sell a t-shirt that said “Eat less” across the front.
  • This past summer, fast fashion retailer Zara decided it would be a good idea to sell a child’s pajama shirt that strongly resembled the uniforms of Jewish people imprisoned during the Holocaust. It gets worse, but stick with me – the shirt was black and white, and featured a six-point star on the chest. In researching this blog, I’ve learned that this was not Zara’s first rodeo into offensive fashion. In 2007, they released a handbag that included four green swastikas, which was apparently overlooked before production.
  • Beloved shoe brand Adidas created a line of “kicks” in 2012 that featured – I can’t even believe I’m writing this – plastic orange chains that could be wrapped around said shoe-wearer’s ankle. Of course, the shoes were criticized, with good reason, because of their resemblance to shackles worn by slaves. Adidas said publically in response that the designs were not offensive, but just the result of designer Jeremy Scott’s outrageous vision. As we Southerners say (in the sarcastically meant way, and not the way that my sweet mother means it,) “Bless their hearts.”

What I want to know is, who decided these (and countless other examples – I’m looking at you, Abercrombie & Fitch) apparel items were a great idea? We never know what goes on behind closed doors; however, one would think that in these meetings and creative sessions there would have been at least one person that should have said, “Hey guys, this is a really bad idea.” And if that idea made it through the filters of those initial meetings, you would think that someone in the C-suite group would have put a stop to it immediately. And, theoretically, if everyone else in the company decided “said shirt, with said offensive design” was a real winner and would make the company a ton of money, I would hope that a public relations executive would have gotten wind of it before production and done the right thing.

In life, we are all faced with decisions – some of them much easier to make than others. As PR professionals, it is our job to make sure the public-facing aspects of whatever company or person we represent is done so in the best and the most honest and ethical way.  Our recommendations are not always the most popular, but they are in the best interest of the company and should be listened to.

While the above-mentioned blunders were likely the result of multiple checks and balances gone wrong, the PR teams certainly fell down on their jobs in the worst way. The worst offenders are those from Zara, Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch who let these “mistakes” happen again and again. In my job, when we make a mistake such as including the wrong boilerplate in a press release or quoting the wrong spokesperson, we take steps to make sure that it never happens again. If I were the spokesperson for these retailers, I would do everything in my power to make sure not a single piece of merchandise could be mistaken for a horrific historical event or crime against humanity –  never, ever again.

Do what’s right, do what’s ethical and all will be well – I promise.

September is PRSA’s national ethics month. For more information on PRSA’s code of Ethics, click here.