Crisis Management: American Apparel and Super Storm Sandy

Note: Here we are, at my last post. It’s been an interesting term so far and I’ve learned a lot from this experience, so thank you for your readership and comments! To wrap things up, we’re going to discuss the use of social media in crisis management.

Effective crisis management has always been an important facet of public relations and requires constant planning and preparation, allowing organizations to react swiftly as crises arise. Ideally, with this monitoring and planning, crises can be avoided to begin with but the reality is that this isn’t always possible.

Arguably, with socially media now firmly embedded into our daily lives- from personal to organizational use- crisis management has become even more important. Social media helps expand the reach and speed of communication and while we’ve highlighted some of the positive ways this can affect an organization, it can also achieve similar results with negative aspects, which obviously is not beneficial for organizations dealing with a crisis.

As illustrated in the infographic below, Twitter seems to be a prime source for many of the most publicized issues and crises in recent times. Sometimes issues and crises arise because of simple mistakes like tweeting from an organization’s Twitter account rather than a personal one. But as we’ve seen with many high profile situations, all too often, the problem begins when inappropriate or just downright stupid tweets are sent out without full consideration or awareness of repercussions, which brings us to American Apparel and super storm Sandy.

From MDG Advertising via Mashable

Although the American Apparel/super storm Sandy crisis originated from a poorly planned marketing campaign through the company’s website, it escalated on social media forums, especially Twitter.

At the end of October, as super storm Sandy approached the eastern coast of the United States, American Apparel sent an email out to its subscribers in that region, offering them 20% off everything for 36 hours, so that they could shop in case they were “bored during the storm”. Many people who received the email were clearly and rightfully offended that American Apparel would use Sandy, a storm that was forecasted to greatly impact those living in the American northeast, to promote online shopping and worse yet, do it in such a blasé manner. While American Apparel has always maintained an irreverent and edgy component to their advertising (it’s level of success is debatable but the intent is there), this campaign came off as just plain offensive. It also contradicts their mandate; one that supposedly focuses on the well being of its people (American Apparel clothing is sweatshop free and manufactured in the US). So users took to Twitter to express their outrage and many promised to boycott the store.

What’s interesting here is that American Apparel wasn’t the only retailer to offer promotions such as this and yet they bore the brunt of the criticism, not only from users but also the media. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find several stories but here are a few highlights (here, here, and here).

American Apparel has been on the decline for the last few years and has been losing sales steadily- the issue of bankruptcy has arisen a number of times- so it’s difficult to assess how this campaign affected the financials. However, what is clear is that their reputation took a significant beating and even after they offered a statement to Fashionista.com they were certainly worse for wear.

So what would I have done, other than not create such an offensive and disrespectful campaign in the first place?

1. Be accountable and issue an apology.

I don’t know what motivated the marketing team at American Apparel to create this campaign. Perhaps they didn’t realize the magnitude of the storm- Hurricane Irene had come and gone in 2011 without a huge impact and maybe they were anticipating the same situation- whatever the reason, what they did was inappropriate so if I were part of the team, I would acknowledge that and apologize. In addition to issuing the apology on the company website, I would also share it across various channels and forums such as Twitter and Facebook, places where the conversations were happening.

2. Monitor, respond, and engage.

Issuing an apology isn’t enough. After the apology has been made, track and monitor the conversations and add clarification where possible. In this case, there’s not much to clarify- it was a poorly planned campaign- but track conversations to make sure that the crisis doesn’t grow, that the conversation doesn’t become increasingly negative, or mutate into something bigger.

3.Do something different.

It is apparent from the severe backlash that there’s a general discontent towards American Apparel. Their too cool to care/irreverent attitude isn’t making people happy and it’s damaging their brand. So open up the discussion and really listen to what people are saying.

While I wouldn’t recommend doing this while the crisis is unfolding, it would be a worthwhile initiative to look into for the future, something like McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions” campaign that followed in the wake of their promoted tweet #McDStories blunder.

And finally my last recommendation, which has less to do with social media and more to do with operations, is to make a donation to the Red Cross. The original promoted sale was 20% off for 36 hours, so why not donate a portion (whatever works from an operational standpoint) from all the sales incurred during that period to an organization that helps the victims?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you have any recommendations for how you’d handle this American Apparel fiasco, I’d love to hear those too.

3 thoughts on “Crisis Management: American Apparel and Super Storm Sandy

  1. Larah Opena says:

    I remember seeing AA’s advertisements all over facebook and twitter about their “Sandy” sale and immediately thinking that was such bad taste given the devastating situation. Your point on how to management a crisis like this is right on point. I would suggest the same steps as well. And of course the donation suggestion is great too!

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