On the face of things it was a reasonable response to a crisis media management incident.
An apology was issued, action was taken and an explanation for the error was provided.
So far, so good. And I even noticed one commentator describe it as a ‘prime example of how to deal with a PR meltdown’.
Only, it isn’t a prime example at all, because of one absolutely crucial factor, timeliness.
The incident in question saw Topman swept up in a whirlwind of negative headlines and social media posts, at the end of last week, after an item of its clothing was widely criticised for appearing to mock victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
That “96” jumper from Topman is absolutely shocking. I’m sure whoever designed it has no knowledge of Hillsborough but surely someone should have realised this was a terrible idea. pic.twitter.com/ARV23BDDeG— Sibs (@SibsMUFC) March 15, 2018
A lot of people have contacted us about this tonight https://t.co/aMdMmDi6S4— Liverpool Echo (@LivEchonews) March 15, 2018
I followed this story closely (full disclosure: I am a Liverpool fan) and the thing that struck me about the coverage, whether I was reading the stories on Thursday evening or Friday morning, was that I kept seeing the same line. ‘Topman is yet to comment’ said the BBC; ‘Topman have been approached for comment’ said both The Telegraph and the Liverpool Echo; ‘Topman is yet to comment on the T-Shirt’ said The Mirror.
It was not until I found by chance an updated version of a Daily Mail story I had already read that I eventually found a response from the store.
It said: “Topman apologises unreservedly for any offence caused by this t-shirt.
“The design was inspired by a Bob Marley track with the number referring to the year of re-release. The garment has been removed from sale online and in stores.”
It is admittedly a pretty bland, robotic sounding corporate apology. But in this instance that’s not the real issue. The far bigger problem I have with the response is how long it took Topman to get those three short sentences into the media.
In a crisis media management incident you have to be able to respond quickly, particularly if that crisis has started on social media channels.
Issuing a response mid Friday morning to a story which broke on Thursday evening is simply not good enough in the break-neck paced, modern media world with its proliferation of digital devices. Ideally, you need to be responding within around 15 minutes, not 12 hours.
And that delay allowed the story and the outrage to grow and other to fill the vacuum left by Topman’s silence.
It also created a lot of uncertainty – something you really don’t need during a crisis. The reports on the story on Friday morning all resorted to saying it ‘appears’ the offending item has been removed from sale, because with no word from Topman, that is about as definitive as they could be.
Now, I understand that the story appeared to break outside of office hours, but if I’m aware of it while I’m sat on my couch, then it seems reasonable to expect that someone from Topman should realise the brand is in the eye of a storm.
Good crisis media management involves planning for events that happen outside of the 9-5, because crises have an annoying habit of not sticking to normal work patterns.
And those plans should involve identifying people who can update the media, respond on social media and make changes to the website out of hours.
The other problem with the response is that it took even longer for the apology to reach Twitter, the place where the storm first gained momentum.
In a crisis you need to use the same channels as those who are talking about your brand or the incident to ensure your response is seen.
Thankfully Topman eventually apologised on this channel as well with a tweet which was posted online Friday afternoon – some 17 hours after the story broke.
Apologising for wrongdoing is crucial, but it has to be done quickly. Crises wait for no-one.
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