The Way Big Brands Combat Online Outrage is How People Should Do It: Acknowledge, Apologize, Investigate

Nike’s advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick in New York. PHOTO: MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

If it feels like there is a steady stream of fresh outrage over consumer-brand gaffes, it may be because companies have become more adept at managing controversy than at pre-empting it.

Over the past year, H&M , Adidas, Reebok, Mercedes-Benz, and many others have faced swift backlash for offensive products or ads. As the reach of social media amplifies brand missteps, companies are finding they must develop new tools to handle the fallout from global online criticism.

“The smallest wrinkles get written about today. Before, if a small outlet wrote about something, we might say, ‘maybe no one will pick it up,’” said Risa Heller, chief executive of public affairs firm Risa Heller Communications. “But now, one photo can ricochet around the internet in two seconds.”

Corporate executives and communications experts say that the increasing speed at which controversy propagates has forced them to perfect the three-pronged rapid response: acknowledge, apologize, and investigate.

“Today you have to react within the first half hour, that’s what we call the ‘window of opportunity,’” said Christian Lawrence, partner at Brunswick Group, which handles crisis communications. “If you ignore something for half an hour, the longer you wait, the longer it takes to shape the perception of the public.”

What comes next can range from lying low to overhauling executive management.

A year after H&M apologized for releasing a children’s hoodie sporting the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle” modeled by a black child, the company has established a new diversity and inclusion team with members in the U.S. and Europe. Ezinne Kwubiri, the company’s first such executive for North America, said that H&M has reconfigured its quality-control processes, making sure products are reviewed by people in multiple departments.

“Everyone in all industries, especially retail, needs to pause for a second and look at how things are produced,” Ms. Kwubiri said, adding that the Sweden-based fast-fashion giant still designs most of its products in Europe and Asia. “We need to take a bit more time in how things are designed, if it’s not adding extra eyes to the process, it’s diversifying the eyes looking at the product.”

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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, by Sara Germano