Crisis comms: Knickers row - was M&S right to not apologise?

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Knickers row: Was M&S right to not apologise?

It is hard to imagine that sparking a debate about sexism was high on the wish list of the M&S team as we enter the festive season.

But the store has found itself at the centre of a media storm after one of its ‘must have’ campaign window displays was described as ‘grotesque’ and ‘vomit inducing’.

The retailer has also been blasted for ‘normalising damaging gender stereotypes’.

The row was triggered by a display at its store in Nottingham which suggested women much have ‘fancy little knickers’, juxtaposed with one which suggests men must have suits as ‘outfits to impress’.

Criticism of the display began with a Facebook post from a group called Feminist Friends Nottingham.

From there the issue grew into some stinging social media attacks and, as is so often the case, ultimately made its way into the traditional media.

Here are some of the headlines on the story:


Marks & Spencer knickers display branded ‘vomit inducing’ BBC News

Marks & Spencer on sexism row over ‘vomit-inducing' window display Sky News

Marks and Spencer slammed for ‘sexist’ window display calling ‘fancy little knickers’ a must-have for women Huff Post

Knickers! Feminists hit out at M&S displays for suggesting lingerie is a Christmas ‘must-have’ for women while suits are on every man’s wish list Daily Mail


As you can see, not the type of headlines you would want to attract with your Christmas campaign. And it is certainly a much bigger issue than just a few people getting their knickers in a twist.

Was it a crisis media management incident? Well, not really.

Certainly, there are some strong opinions and plenty of outrage.



But you suspect it is likely to be an issue that the media quickly moves on from and is unlikely to cause any long-term damage.

That said, the definition of exactly what is a crisis seems to be evolving as brands become ever more fearful of upsetting customers and different sections of society and facing a social media onslaught.

You may recall, for example, that earlier this month, Waitrose lost the editor of its Food magazine after an ill-judged joke about culling vegans triggered a huge vocal backlash.

So you may have expected M&S to do something similar. Perhaps apologise profusely for the transgression, state that it takes the issues seriously and claim that it had learnt its lesson.  Maybe we might have been told that a window designer had lost their employment as a result of the fallout.

But the store has taken a very different approach. There has been no apology and, according to a BBC report, has said it won’t change the display.

Its statement, carried widely by the media, said: “M&S sells more underwear, in more shapes, sizes and styles, than any other retailer, especially at Christmas.

“We’ve highlighted one combination in our windows, which are part of a wider campaign that features a large variety of Must-Have Christmas moments, from David Gandy washing up in an M&S suit through to families snuggling up in our matching PJs.”

Regardless of your thoughts on the issue, this strategy is an interesting approach to negative stories and issue management in the social media climate of high-alert to criticism. Actually, I’d go further and say it feels refreshing.

That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with the strategy, but it has certainly won it some admirers.



So what can other brands learn from this?

Well whether or not you agree with the approach to this particular issue, I think there is a key lesson here for other organisations - you don’t automatically need to apologise for every outrage.

If an organisation genuinely does not believe it has done something wrong, why should it apologise and promise to make changes? Apologies should be reserved for when an organisation has done something it really regrets or when something has gone terribly wrong.

Sometimes responding to criticism and apologising for any upset can actually give an issue more impetus and credibility. If you cast your minds back to last year, for example, you may recall that Paperchase went into full crisis mode after a promotion with the Daily Mail triggered a social media backlash.

It quickly issued an apology, but that dug it a bigger hole because, having placated those who dislike the Mail, it upset those who felt it was caving into online pressure. And, the move brought wider interest to an issue which would have blown away.                                    

And by anyone’s definition for what constitutes a crisis media management incident, that is a pants strategy.



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