In any aspect of life, the possibility of crisis should always be expected. Crises can happen anywhere and at any time without warning. For example, one minute you are walking to an interview for your dream job, a hot Starbucks coffee in hand, wearing your new, very stylish and extremely professional white blazer, and the next minute you are tripping over your highly uncomfortable but SUPER CUTE nude heels. You stare in horror as your once spotless white sleeve is now covered with skinny peppermint mocha. Luckily for you, you are always prepared for a crisis. You rush back to your car, slip on your trusty black blazer and make it to your interview with minutes to spare!
Although the crises they deal with may differ from the example mentioned above, Public Relations Pros need to be prepared for every possibility of a crisis. The strategies that help Public Relations practitioners survive crises include the conflict management life cycle. This cycle involves four phrases: The proactive, strategic, reactive and recovery phrase (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber & Shin, 2013). The proactive phrase involves strategies that will prevent a crisis from happening. The strategic phase helps to identify arising crisis, while the reactive phase involves reacting to the crisis (hence the name). The last phase is the recovery phase and it helps restore the organization’s image (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber & Shin, 2013).
A recent incident that shook up the retail world was the Urban Outfitters and Kent State crisis. In 1970, four Kent State students were shot and killed by a police officer during a protest for the Vietnam War (Rothman, 2014). In 2014, the popular clothing store, Urban Outfitters advertised a “vintage Kent State sweatshirt” that was splattered with red dye, resembling blood (Rothman, 2014). Obviously, the public took this as a reference to the horrible Kent State incident. In response to the backlash the company felt, their PR team released an “apology” statement that explained that the merchandise was never meant to be associated with the Kent State shootings. They also clarified that there was no blood on the sweatshirt and the company was extremely saddened that their product caused this uproar (Winchel, 2014).
Was this the proper way to respond to such an issue?
Although the company responded to the issue with an apology statement, this crisis could have been prevented from the very start. Proactive strategies should have been set in place so that the sweatshirt was never made in the colors or design that it was. Also, it should never have been advertised as a “vintage” sweatshirt. Since the incident only happened about 40 years prior, many people were still sensitive and affected by the incident and the designers should have been aware of this. It turns out there is a reason we take history throughout our twelve years of school- it is important to be aware of past events to learn from them and reflect on them. If the company had been aware of the Kent State incident, it would have prevented a lot of headache for the brand. Also, the “apology” the company released wasn’t a full or appropriate apology at all. It simply mentioned that the public misunderstood the sweatshirt and the company had no intention of associating it with the Kent State incident (Pyle, 2016). When a company is in the wrong, even if it is unintentional, it is necessary to release a full, sincere apology to the publics.
This shows that Urban Outfitters failed at the proactive, strategic and reactive phase, but what about the recovery phase? Well, they failed at this too. Many other incidents have occurred after the Kent State sweatshirt that have stirred controversy and painted the brand in a negative light. These incidents include selling a t-shirt with the phrase “eat less” on it as well as offering a clothing item in the color options “White/Charcoal” or “Black/Obama”, just to name a few (Pyle, 2016). Apparently, Urban Outfitters need to step up their game in their PR department. They should definitely read my blog post on why PR is so important! 😉
As I mentioned before, crisis is inevitable and only some of the time preventable. However, it is important to set a plan in place so that organizations can either prevent a crisis from occurring, spot a crisis when it’s approaching, respond correctly when the crisis occurs or recover quickly after the crisis hits.
Pyle, A. (2016). Handbook of Research on Effective Communication, Leadership, and Conflict
Resolution. IGI Global. Retrieved on February 7, 2017 from
Rothman, L. (2014). Why That Urban Outfitters Kent State Sweatshirt Caused an Uproar.
Time. Retrieved February 7, 2017 from http://time.com/3377949/urban-outfitters-
Wilcox, D., Cameron, G., Reber, B., Shin, J. (2013). Think: Public Relations. New Jersey:
Winchel, B. (2014). Urban Outfitters offends with red-stained ‘vintage’ Kent State
sweatshirt. PR Daily. Retrieved February 7, 2017 from