Reacting to an Industry Crisis through Digital Content
The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh in April that killed at least 1,127 factory workers was caused by widespread neglect by city officials, building owners and brand retailers contracting in these facilities. Some of those retailers were globally known fashion brands. You might even be wearing one of their labels right now. The factory collapse shined a light on a part of the fashion industry that most apparel companies would probably rather stay in the shadows. As apparel brands who use labor from factories in developing countries have scrambled in the past month to address their operations abroad, the incident has also presented a challenge and an opportunity to communicate to consumers about their response to the disaster and their commitment to ethical labor practices. A few brands seized on the event as a chance to inform consumers about their stance on the issue. The effort might have been part damage control, but it was also a way for the brands to get in front of a troubling issue and let consumers know their values.
Using Content to Make an Impact
A few fashion companies of relevance to the topic have used this incident to take initiatives to prevent this from happening again in Bangladesh and elsewhere even if they had no part in the April factory collapse.
H&M is one of Bangladesh’s biggest buyers of apparel, which was a major catalyst for the retailer to speak up and create content to support its stance even though it were not directly involved in this incident. The international clothing brand, along with Zara, C&A, Tesco and Primark, signed a binding accord to improve conditions for factory workers to avoid fires, building collapses and other preventable accidents. To promote this position, H&M participated in many interviews in top publications and distribute press releases about their efforts towards correcting problems like the one that caused the Rana Plaza factory collapse. From a PR perspective H&M saw the brand’s relevancy to the event as an opportunity to draw much needed attention to the ethical issue and the right time to convey the brand’s values. “Treating our employees and business partners in a fair way helps us to retain talent and build long-term and trusting relationships,” says Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M. This PR approach can grow the trust and authority of a brand with the right content, sensitivity, and long-term focus.
Consequently, H&M releases a continual stream of detailed content, reports, and case studies about sustainability and manufacturing ethics. Each case study highlights the initiative for change, how H&M has worked with partners to solve the issues,what progress is being made, and what improvements have resulted. Developing these case studies and reports, alongside a comprehensive video and photo series, helps H&M communicate with the world that the company is dedicated to fixing the problem. H&M is showing a long-term commitment though their content, a strong focus on the progress they’ve actually achieved and highlights of acknowledgements and awards they’ve received from other organizations for their efforts. This is an effective approach to help prove that its content and stance are impactful and genuine long-term plans, not one-off PR stunts.
Upholding a Reputation Through Content
Other fashion brands directly involved in the recent Bangladesh incident have chosen not to take a stance on the issue or have only done so to protect their reputation. The United Colors of Benetton initially denied involvement in the Bangladesh building collapsed, which was later refuted by many and ultimately confirmed by the CEO of Benetton himself. One way to take a stance on a highly visible issue is by relying on the content creation efforts and distribution power of others, in this case Benetton CEO Biagio Chiarolanza decided to take an interview with the Huffington Post, which was then covered by every other major publication. Benetton used this interview as an opportunity to dispel rumors about the company’s involvement by using the publishing expertise and reach of major publications, removing the company from an obligation to create its own content that would need to reference involvement in the collapse. However, since there is no published plan by Benetton on how the company would work to improve conditions despite assurances from Chiarolanza in the interview, there’s certainly a disingenuous feeling given the lack of supporting content to back up the promises. That is, until Benetton announced with a press release that it too had signed the safety agreement and was planning an initiative to help the victims of Rana Plaza, supporting the previous claims Chiarolanza made in his interview and driving more credibility to the company’sassurances. Gap Inc., on the other hand, has released many statements on the incident stating the company’s position on the topic and how it didn’t operate at Rana Plaza, in response to widespread criticism for not signing the safety accord. Though Gap’s PR was heavily focused on protecting its reputation and denying involvement with the collapse, its stance gained trustworthiness and authority since they provided content that not just illustrated their condolences for the victims but also spelled out specific action steps that Gap would take to improve safety concerns across Bangladesh. Supporting content can help bolster claims made by a brand as more of a commitment and less of a false promise. Regardless of a brand’s ultimate position on this tragic incident and what caused it, it’s evident that choosing to create content about its position helps to build more credibility and less ambiguity about how they continue to handle (or not handle) their involvement over time. When nothing is said from a PR perspective it leaves room for third parties to chime in, speak for the brand, and often criticize the silence. And this isn’t ideal. But in the meantime, all the aforementioned brands — Gap Inc., H&M, United Colors of Benetton — will need to follow through on the goals and tactics they’ve communicated through their responses to the Rana Plaza tragedy. Because making a promise and failing to follow through, particularly when human lives are on the line, is worse than saying nothing at all.