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Urban Outfitters: Plain poor judgment or PR success?

By Axia Public Relations

Urban Outfitters Kent StateBy Wendy Bulawa Agudelo

The blood-spattered Kent State University sweatshirt on sale from Urban Outfitters this week caught the nation’s attention. A seemingly simple, one-off product created a stir so large that it fueled widespread outrage across social media platforms (see the #urbanoutfitters trending topic) and the public all but demanded a complete boycott of the company. Urban Outfitters now sits amid a crisis, working around the clock to mitigate this situation while effectively responding to the onslaught of media attention – negative though it may be – that the popular clothing company is now receiving.

 Following severe chastisement for its decision to release the sweatshirt design, Urban Outfitters issued a statement suggesting the design was simply “vintage.” The company also apologized saying:

“It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset.

At Axia Public Relations, we know better than most the importance of a crisis communications plan. Too many companies make the mistake of thinking it could never happen to them. In response, we highlight several crisis situations of the week – and there are always plenty to choose from. In short, crisis situations can and do unexpectedly arise. Therefore, should your company find itself in the midst of its own crisis, here are some guidelines that may prove useful:

1. Get all the facts. The most important step during a crisis is to understand the entirety of the situation and all relevant facets. In the case of Urban Outfitters, the company is likely researching when/where the sweatshirt design was approved and manufacture was initiated; when the actual photos of the products were taken and product geared for sale; who wrote and approved product copy; and when the item was uploaded, coded and made available for online sale.

2. Calm your audience. Once you have (and confirm) the facts, your next critical step is to immediately and confidently share what you know in brief, digestible snippets. Urban Outfitters has taken steps down this path by issuing a public and personal apology to Kent State University alongside a statement of explanation.

3. Establish a resolution and share it. Once the public is advised of the situation, the next step is to put forth a plan of resolution and publicly share said plan alongside a timeline for execution. Urban Outfitters has also started to manage this step by removing the offensive product/link from its website, and there is likely more to come.

4. Provide a solution and follow up. By the holiday shopping season, the “sweatshirt debacle” may be nothing more than a blip on Urban Outfitters’ radar. However, damage to the company’s reputation and loss of credibility will remain and shoppers may very well do what public outcry suggests: boycott. Therefore, if the company is smart, it’ll leverage a professional PR posse to not only remedy the situation (a sizeable donation to Kent State University shooting victims may make a dent), but work toward rebuilding remedial trust by keeping audiences abreast of its efforts – which, after a crisis, is paramount.

Some may argue that Urban Outfitters has earned PR success due to the sheer volume of impressions and social media attention the company has received courtesy of this unexpected foible. It’s the old (and very incorrect) cliché claiming that “All PR is good PR.” Regardless of impressions, should your company’s key demographic stop buying what you sell, the problem is just beginning. However, with a comprehensive plan in place and the right PR team behind it, any company can manage external communications effectively, even amid crisis.

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