If stakeholders think there’s a racism crisis, it’s already happened

Crisis comms expert Tony Jaques analyses the reactions of some of the world's biggest retailers after they were accused of racism.

When an organisation is accused of racism – even if it was inadvertent – the risk to reputation is fierce, and the rational options are few.

Some recent cases highlight that such accusations generally offer the target company zero upside, and the only realistic strategy is damage limitation. The question is: how best can that be achieved?

Swedish fashion brand H&M found itself in hot water after having a black child model a hooded top with the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” The ensuing outcry was predictable and protesters in South Africa even ransacked H&M stores. Although the offending image was withdrawn, it took the company three separate attempts at an apology before managing to avoid the qualifications and excuses which so often undermine sincerity.

How much cleaner and simpler was the response when an American writer tweeted about the artwork on Kellogg’s Corn Pop cereal boxes. Saladin Ahmed pointed out that of all the cartoon characters on the box, only one had a brown skin, and he was a janitor polishing the floor. Within five hours Kellogg’s had tweeted a sincere apology, and also agreed to redesign the packaging.

Contrast this with a University of Sydney advertisement, which was officially found to be racially discriminatory. An independent reviewer who argued in its favour remarked (among other things) that: “The complaint against the advertisement was made by only one person.” The ad has just been rejected for a second time by the Advertising Standards Bureau.

A more contentious case was the Facebook ad for Dove body wash, where a black woman peels off a dark shirt and is transformed into a white woman in a beige shirt. Here too the company quickly withdrew the ad and apologised that it had “missed the mark.” But as Time magazine commented: “For many the apology did not suffice, with consumers dumbfounded as to how the ad ever got the go-ahead.”

That’s a really good question, which was partly answered by the model herself, Lola Ogunyemi, who wrote a newspaper article and recorded a video message about the controversy. “I can see how the snapshots circulating the Web have been misinterpreted,” she wrote. “I can also see a lot has been left out. The narrative has been written without giving consumers the context on which to base an informed opinion.”

It’s not clear whether the model’s decision to speak out was encouraged by Dove or was her own initiative. But it does seem clear that her intervention – however well intentioned – had no discernible impact on the spread and impact of the negative publicity. And this comes just two years after Dove was involved in another racism controversy for promoting a skin lotion for “normal to dark” skin.

The latest Dove case is a timely reminder that denial or explanation in the face of an accusation of racism is seldom useful and sometimes makes the situation even worse. In fact what the accused organisation thinks is probably the least important opinion.

Perhaps the best advice comes from Sherry Holladay and Tim Coombs, the contemporary power couple of public relations: “If stakeholders think there is a risk or crisis, there is one.”

In other words, recognise it and deal with it, own up and genuinely apologise, put plans in place to avoid a repeat… and learn from the experience.

This piece first appeared in Tony Jaques’ Issue Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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