H&M’s “Unintentional” Faux Pas Has Dire Consequences

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Published on March 7, 2018, at 4:27 p.m.
by Darsey Norton.

Earlier this year, global retailer H&M made headlines as many accused the brand of racism. The accusations came after H&M posted an ad that featured an African-American child wearing a sweatshirt with the words, “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”

Photo from @Stinnixx on Twitter

H&M is ranked “23rd out of the most highly recognized global brands.” With 34,168,913 page likes on Facebook and 8,754,313 Twitter followers (as of March 6, 2018), it comes as no surprise that H&M’s controversial ad quickly went viral. What followed serves as a public relations case study in crisis communication.

Shortly after the ad went viral, celebrities and influencers took to Twitter to voice their opinions. Singer and songwriter The Weeknd posted a photo of the ad stating, “I will not be working with H&M anymore.” Rapper G-Eazy also announced the end of his partnership with H&M,  tweeting, “Unfortunately, after seeing the disturbing image yesterday, my excitement over our global campaign evaporated, and I’ve decided at this time our partnership needs to end.”

Amid the social media frenzy, H&M protestors gathered in South Africa. Photos and videos of outraged protestors throwing merchandise throughout H&M stores quickly spread on Twitter.

H&M responded by removing the controversial product from sale and temporarily closing all stores in South Africa. H&M also issued an apology on its press website stating, “This incident is accidental in nature, but this doesn’t mean we don’t take it extremely seriously or understand the upset and discomfort it has caused.”

Photo from @ATLBlackStar on Twitter

The conversation was fueled when Terry Mango, mother of the model featured in the ad, took to Facebook to voice her opinion on the scandal. Mango stated in her post that those offended by the ad should “get over it.” Although the posts have since been deleted, her comments brought even more attention to the issue. In an interview with BBC Outside Source, Mango said, “I respect other people’s opinion on the issue. I know racism exists, but does the shirt to me speak racism? No it doesn’t.”

In a final response to the backlash, H&M hired a global diversity leader. The brand issued a statement on Facebook saying, “The recent incident was entirely unintentional, but it demonstrates so clearly how big our responsibility is as a global brand.” Annie Wu will serve as the leader to promote diversity and inclusion as H&M moves forward.

Photo from @TheRoot on Twitter

Although this controversy has died down, it is important to look at the sources of discussion amid the issue. Most of the conversation generated on this topic was sparked by comments made on social media.

Now more than ever, people are making use of social platforms to voice their opinions and hold brands reliable. This case study in crisis communication serves as a reminder to all PR practitioners to be sensitive of all people, cultures and views before posting anything that can easily be shared via social media.

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