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They Spent Millions of Dollars and They Still Messed Up. It's Not the Mistake, it's the Recovery - April 22, 2019

Perception can be a powerful tool, either to motivate or to damage.  In a rapidly changing social environment, failing to understand how perceptions are changing or how specific images or words affect others can have an extremely damaging effect on your company, whether through loss of clients or claims of discrimination. 

No One is Immune

No industry is immune to perceptional issues, even “cutting edge” and “creative” industries. Fashion house Burberry put out a hoodie with a noose around the neck. When it was called out for the images of lynching the hoodie evoked, Burberry claimed it was a sailor’s knot, although it was clearly a perfect hangman’s knot. Gucci put out a black face sweater, Prada’s Animalia Collection with its monkeys were considered inappropriate imagery, Katy Perry designed black face shoes. Finally, Dolce & Gabbana created quite the firestorm in November 2018 with ads featuring an Asian model struggling to eat pasta with chopsticks. This was considered insulting by the Asian market, a market Dolce & Gabbana can ill afford to alienate since one third of the world’s luxury spending comes from China, not to mention the buying impact of other Asian countries.

In the sport of international cricket, a West Indies bowler, Shannan Gabriel, in a major match, said to Captain Joe Root of the England team, “What are you smiling at? Do you like boys?” While the insult itself wasn’t captured by live mic, Captain Root’s response was, and it was classic: “Don’t use it as an insult, there is nothing wrong with being gay.” This became a matter for the International Cricket Council which banned Mr. Gabriel from four matches, gave him a field warning, and docked 75% of his match pay. Mr. Gabriel responded with the classic harasser’s excuse, paraphrased as, I didn’t know it was offensive but now I understand.

While these seem like egregious examples when we examine them now, someone, likely a lot of someones, thought that these were good or clever ideas. There is no major fashion house that launches an ad or a collection without a group of creative marketing and business people, including lawyers, looking it over to make sure that it is ok. Even with the help of the coolest, up to the minute trend forecasters, businesses still go wrong.

The Recovery

The issue here is exactly what you tell your employees, it is not the mistake, it is owning the mistake and the process you use to recover from it.  Pretending an employee didn’t use a racial epithet or that it was no big deal that it occurred will not typically resolve the issue and is likely to lead to more complaints and greater concerns, only escalating the problem. 

Dolce & Gabbana’s response which included some unflattering Twitter statements was possibly the wrong direction.  While not stylish and certainly wouldn’t be featured in a Gucci campaign, the boring, basic advice, like a pair of classic black pants, remains valuable.

  1. Train not only harassment but also workplace expectations. It is not always the clear harassment that starts the problem.
  2. Have a clear policy for complaints.
  3. Investigate concerns seriously.
  4. Take prompt and remedial action where warranted.

The response here should be akin to that of the International Cricket Council. When Mr. Gabriel’s statement came to its attention, the problem was assessed completely. The Council didn’t back away from the issue or fall back on the “boys will be boys” excuse. Instead it took prompt and remedial action which the Council felt was proportionate to the issue at hand.

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