Do you know who Chip Wilson is? He’s from Vancouver, where I proudly hang my hat. So I really want to be proud of him. He’s an amazing entrepreneur, who has created global, multi-billion dollar companies, mainly Lululemon Athletica, which revolutionized what we wear to and from yoga. And yet, over the past year, it’s been hard to be proud of Chip.
First there was his company’s see-through yoga pants. That was bad, but not nearly as bad as his explanation. In a media interview, Chip told a reporter that basically, their pants aren’t designed for larger women. Or at least that was the inference. What he really said was:
When asked about complaints about pilling of the fabric, Wilson replied:
“There has always been pilling. The thing is that women will wear seatbelts that don’t work or they’ll wear a purse that doesn’t work or, quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for it,” Wilson said. “Even our small sizes would fit an extra large, [but] It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there … over a period of time, and how much they use it,” he continued.
His wife who was sitting next to him during the interview cringed when he said it and tried to back peddle, but the damage was done. So now Chip must apologize.
And that’s the other reason why it’s hard to be proud of Chip. His “apology.” ABC News called it perhaps the “worst apology ever.” The only response he had to that big mistake in media relations was to post a short clip on Youtube that was directed to Lululemon staff, but was of course public.
How was this a mistake? Well, first, he only apologized to staff, not customers or anyone else he offended. Next, he told us how sad he is that this has happened, but it’s not about you, Chip, it’s about the company’s reputation, it’s about sales, and it’s about being seen not to be offending potential and current customers. What he said:
“I’m sad. I’m really sad. I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions. I’m sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about that have really had to face the brunt of my action…I take responsibility for all that has occurred and the impact it has had on you. I’m sorry to have put you through all this.”
And that’s about it. He did not retract his statement that “some women’s bodies just don’t work” for his pants. And he didn’t apologize to those who might have taken offence. He didn’t explain or add context or take it back. He’s just sad and sorry. For his staff.
Chip has spawned many parodies, including a top five of his most controversial quotes that I quite like.
Oh Chip, we want to love you, but you make it so hard!
British Columbia has seen a bunch of spending scandals in the past few months. A number of politicians and non-profit executives are giving their colleagues a bad reputation after being caught spending public funds on personal or frivolous stuff. The public is angry, and sometimes, only an apology will do.
Take the example of Linda Reid. The Richmond, BC Member of the Legislative Assembly and the Speaker of the Legislature, was outed by the Vancouver Sun in March for spending tens of thousands of government dollars on what seems like unnecessary stuff (especially in these days of spending cuts and austerity and refusal to give teachers a pay raise). She spent more than $13,000 to create an MLA-only TV lounge (with a muffin rack costing more than $700), another $14,000 for new drapes in the legislature’s dining room, and more than $48,000 (!) for a custom touch-screen computer terminal in front of her seat in the legislature.
It seems Reid also hired her election campaign manager as her executive assistant, but since this woman lives on the mainland and the job is on Vancouver Island, Reid was billing the legislature for her hotel, travel and meals. Even her own government didn’t defend her on that.
Naturally this story led to heaps of media coverage, with critics having a field day picking her apart. It took Reid a few days to respond, but finally did. Her answer?
“As Speaker, I take full responsibility for these expenditures, The legislative assembly is the people’s building, it should be open and transparent and the public must have absolute confidence that we are managing the taxpayers money appropriately.”
That $48,000 computer monitor?
Reid said the new equipment allows the Speaker to know when MLAs wish to address the house.
So a hand held up wouldn’t work, huh? Teachers, can you justify this now for your classrooms? And about those drapes:
Reid called the expense “routine maintenance,” which permits repairs every 18 to 20 years.
So no apology, just an explanation. She later did apologize to fellow MLAs, saying:
“I certainly apologize, and I recognize the concerns which have been raised have detracted from our work to make the assembly’s financial management more accountable and transparent.”
So, not really sorry I abused or even appeared to abuse public funds, but sorry I got caught and that’s distracting from our work. She did add that her executive assistant will now work out of her constituency office and not fly back and forth on the public dime.
And did that silence her critics? No, but it did get her a reputation.
Media-cornered, (Reid’s) response will live in B.C. history: “Accountability speaks to me, transparency speaks to me, accessibility speaks to me.” She should have stuck the public for a hearing aid.
But people forget figures. They never forget a symbolic item that Dick and Jane can relate to: Reid spent $733 for a muffin rack. She’ll take a pasting for that forever.
And her attitude pasted a target on her back too, because she was also outed that same month for flying her husband to South Africa, spending about $5,500 of public money, to have him by her side while she attended a conference. She even tweeted a photo of how much fun he was having. At least this time Reid offered some humility, and repayment.
“If this caused anyone any consternation, I sincerely apologize.”
But then went on to explain again.
“It’s a practice. What this place has always done, they tell me, is if you can get the flight for less than a business class flight, if you can get two of those, you can do that. And that’s frankly been done for 15 or 20 years, if not longer.”
Even her own government thought that wasn’t good enough. The Finance Minister Mike de Jong said:
“Politicians have to ask themselves whether or not the money, the public dollars that they are spending, are being spent in a defensible manner.”
So our lesson here is pretty clear. Don’t abuse public funds, but if caught, it’s not defensible to tell the public that you were allowed to do it. Even if you were, you’ve been caught, everyone, including your peers, is telling you it’s wrong, so apologize. A heartfelt apology will help win back goodwill, but offering only an explanation will only increase ill will.
In our current era of ‘new media,’ where everyone has a blog, including journalists and non-journalists, and some blogs get equal if not bigger audiences as mainstream media, the line between journalism and non-journalistic opinion is blurring. When I teach media relations, I usually say that journalists are subject to a code of ethics, and accountable to their editors and publishers, whereas bloggers are generally accountable only to their readers, so if people will read what they write, they can say what they want. In PR, we too have a code of ethics, although one need not subscribe to it if one is not a member of a PR association, which you don’t have to be in order to do communications. And now that we all have a forum (online) to publish opinions, it can be hard to tell if a writer is subject to one of these sets of rules or not.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that sometimes a conflict comes to light, where a journalist is accused of playing both sides of the fence. Even if it’s only the appearance of conflict, there is a public expectation of neutrality from mainstream media that seems to call for a higher standard of ethics. As with the situation where a PR agency tried to pay journalists working at mainstream media outlets to write favourable blog posts about a client, the ethical line isn’t always clear, but the public expectations on the ethics of mainstream journalism is clear.
Take the case of Amanda Lang, a business host on CBC TV, who was accused of being in conflict of interest on stories about RBC and the bank’s use of foreign workers because she has been paid by RBC to give speeches, and because her boyfriend is on the RBC board.
Lang was accused of interfering in the reporting of a big CBC news story, both at the network and through an op-ed she wrote in the Globe and Mail. While her take on the RBC story was more pro-RBC than the position of the reporting team at CBC’s Go Public, the real accusation is that her take on the story resulted because she has been paid by RBC for speeches, and because she’s dating someone at the bank. As the Globe and Mail summed up:
“At issue is a series of allegations… – denied by Lang and the CBC – first, that Lang had a number of paid speaking engagements for a corporation whose representatives she later interviewed in a softball manner on CBC; second, that Lang attempted to diminish CBC’s coverage of the revelation that Royal Bank of Canada was laying off Canadians and replacing them with foreign workers; and, third, that her involvement in the story was tainted by both personal and professional connections to RBC.”
Lang defended her actions and CBC backed her up, but the appearance of conflict still hangs over her. No one comes out and says RBC paid her directly to influence CBC’s coverage of the bank, but since they sponsored some of her speeches, from which she benefit financially, the implication is that she did exactly that. And that taint still follows her. Google her name and the stories about the allegations of conflict are all over the first page of results. The Globe’s TV columnist called for her to resign.
“It’s time for Lang to get down off her high horse and go away. This is about the CBC’s reputation, not hers, which is already in tatters.”
The CBC took, and is still taking, flack for it’s defence of Lang. Part of the fallout for CBC, which is still facing public criticism of its handling of the Jian Ghomeshi situation, is that CBC has now banned its on-air journalists from accepting paid speaking gigs. At least now that’s clear, right?
Lang wrote another op-ed in the Globe to defend herself, and said:
“In retrospect, I see that I allowed this circumstance to develop, by assuming that my integrity would not be questioned if I accepted speaking fees from business associations and companies…I support CBC’s decision to change its policy, and I will no longer accept paid appearances, and in fact began refusing payment several weeks ago.”
So her thinking seems to have been that she knew she didn’t do anything wrong, so was shocked when anyone accused her of wrongdoing. Perhaps not her best approach at apologizing and regaining public trust.
But the real issue isn’t just about paid appearances, it’s about ethics and avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest, and how we hold mainstream media organizations and their journalists to a higher standard. A blogger might have been let off more easily, but not the CBC. Kathy Tomlinson, the reporter who broke the RBC story said:
“As a result of this, many people – including me – are asking one simple question. Why it is ever OK to have any perceived conflict of interest, under any circumstances? This is not about Amanda Lang. It is about the long standing belief most journalists have – that conflicts should be avoided at all costs or explicitly declared up front.”
From the “What were they thinking?” file, and the “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” file, comes the story of Coors Light’s campaign in July 2014 for Search and Rescue.
A promotional campaign to get beer drinkers engaged with the brand on social media and in real life, Coors Light Canada created Search and Rescue, where they hid a bunch of briefcases around the country, and mapped them on a website. Players (age of majority only of course!) searched for them and if found, posted a photo with the briefcase and then won prizes. However, in Toronto, this backfired in a huge way.
On a busy workday during rush hour, someone called in a suspicious package at Dundas and Spadina in Toronto — major intersection — and the bomb squad was called. The road was closed, cars and buses diverted. And what was the package? Why a Coors Light briefcase of course. The Toronto Transit Commission, and a lot of twitter users, were not amused.
Yah, not the most thought-through idea a beer company ever had (insert your own joke now about consuming too much of their own product while designing this campaign).
At least they apologized.
You’d think someone would have researched this kind of thing ahead of time. If they had, they would have stumbled upon a campaign from 2007 by the Cartoon Network for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a late-night cartoon show. Then, more than a dozen electronic devices with blinking lights were found throughout Boston and were mistaken for bombs. Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless. Two men were arrested for putting up the devices, which were only supposed to promote the cartoon show that featured a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball. Just like in Toronto this past summer, the same blinking lights had been in place for a few weeks in nine other American cities with no trouble, but it’s the Boston ones that made the news.
Leaving aside that this beer company appropriated the hashtag #searchandrescue, which is used on Twitter to discuss real Search and Rescue activities, where people are lost in the backwoods or in natural disasters and professionals search for them (I’m just waiting for that social media backlash), Coors Light didn’t plan very well for the kinds of crises a marketing stunt like theirs could create. Beer companies will always do stuff like this, but crisis planning should think through stuff like this.
Kenneth Cole, the fashion house famous for its shoes (at least in my closet!), really put foot in mouth during the Arab Spring. At the height of the demonstrations in Egypt in 2011, the twitter account credited to the designer posted this:
You might remember how important Twitter was during those demonstrations, when internet access was often blocked and organizers used the #Cairo hashtag to connect with supporters. Maybe not so much to shop for shoes.
Needless to say, the internet masses turned on Kenneth Cole. Those who had been using the #Cairo hashtag outside of Egypt to keep up to date on news were pretty vicious.
- WTF is wrong with you,
@KennethCole ? http://twitter.com/#!/KennethCole/status/33177584262971393
- @KennethCole Totally poor taste. People are dying in the streets and you want to advertise your fashions? #boycottKennethCole
- I have to say the #Kennethcole tweet made me giggle; they had to know there would be backlash.. They are now in a PR nightmare. Intended???
And within minutes, a parody @kennethcolepr account was created, and the #KennethColeTweets hashtag took off.
- “People from New Orleans are flooding into Kenneth Cole stores!”#KennethColeTweets
- Hey #Mubarak: Perhaps it’d be easier to step down with a pair of ultra-comfy loafers from our spring collection! #KennethColeTweets
- Going to a cross burning? You’ll hate cutting eye holes in our 600 thread count cotton sheets. #KennethColeTweets
- Horrified by the discarded shoes at Auschwitz? You’ll never part with anything from our new line—not over your dead body! #KennethColeTweets
- Don’t be a slave to bad fashion – Celebrate Black History Month with our new Spring line! #KennethColeTweets
Kenneth Cole did post a kind-of apology:
But still, not the kind of PR you really want, is it? Despite the apology, the tweet generated negative coverage for weeks. Just goes to show that just because you’re fashionable doesn’t mean you exhibit good taste. 😉