In June 2013, retailer Abercrombie & Fitch was confronted with a delicate situation that demanded some intervention from the chain’s internal crisis response team. Such is the way it goes sometimes for a global apparel retailer whose audience happens to be high-maintenance, social media-savvy Millennials.
This particular situation involved singer Taylor Swift and a T-shirt emblazoned with “#more boyfriends than t.s.” Swift’s fans were outraged at the perceived slight and mounted a quickly escalating negative social media campaign.
While the chain has faced several crises over the years, including criticism from family groups about the company’s iconic black and white advertisements and catalogs, the Swift situation still needed to be addressed with care and dispatch, says Ronald “Rocky” A. Robins Jr., former Abercrombie & Fitch senior vice president, general counsel and secretary.
Robins, today a partner in the Columbus, Ohio, office of law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, co-chaired the Abercrombie & Fitch crisis communication committee during his four-year tenure with the retailer. When the Swift situation arose, the company’s public relations and crisis response teams sprang into action; eventually sales of the T-shirt were discontinued and the company mounted an apologetic Twitter campaign to set things right with Swift’s fans.
STORES contributing editor M.V. Greene recently spoke with Robins.
What are some dynamics to crisis communication in retail and how does it differ from other industries?
My sense is that the crisis management process and crisis response process should be fairly similar across industries. The one potential difference in retail is just the number of different touchpoints that you have. For example, a company like A&F has more than 1,000 stores in close to 20 countries … and literally hundreds of thousands of associates …. That’s a lot of touchpoints, which means there are a lot of different places where a crisis can arise.
Describe the process within companies for addressing crisis communication issues, the different components that are involved and how they converge.
At A&F we created a crisis management committee during the time I was there. Not that we didn’t have a crisis response mechanism before that, but we formalized the process. We basically preassembled a team and a protocol that originated in our enterprise risk management and normal risk review process. The crisis management committee came together through that review. We looked at who ought to be involved with it and who should chair it and what different resources should be at hand.
Ours was a relatively informal committee that was co-chaired by the CFO and the general counsel. Our head of human resources was an additional co-chair depending on the issue … . And, of course, our CEO was always available to play an active role in the crisis management process if the crisis, or potential crisis, warranted his participation.
How would the committee address issues that came up?
The CFO and I were effectively across the hall from each other, so a lot of times when information would come up to us that would have the potential to be a crisis, we would hash it through without formally convening the committee. But there was a process to formally convene as well. … We knew how to get in touch with certain key operational people within the company, pretty much the heads of each of the different business units, and then externally we had on-call outside legal resources, public relations firms, financial advisers, insurance and risk management experts, asset protection resources and the like, not only in the United States but throughout the world.
When you identify something as a crisis, what happens? What’s the timeframe for action? What do you do immediately?
First you have to recognize that certainly not every perceived crisis is in fact a crisis, and not every incipient crisis becomes a crisis. Part of the crisis response process is addressing — and nipping in the bud — potential crises before they escalate. Over time, we put in place, largely through our public relations and investor relations departments, both internal and external monitoring resources.
For example, we were constantly monitoring social media traffic as well as the online, printed and video press throughout the world. We had a mechanism based on volume, topic or “heat level” for monitoring events. There were certainly a number of issues that came to the chairs of the committee, but many were not crises.
Has social media increased the stakes for crisis management?
Absolutely. … Communications are instant and 24/7, and information spreads around the country and internationally like a wildfire. As a company, a management team and a crisis response team, you clearly have to be prepared to respond, and respond quickly. We had a mechanism to elevate potential events to the internal public relations folks, and then to the crisis management team, depending on the volume and what was being said.
When there is a massive issue like a data breach, how does a company get a handle on something like that?
In those situations, obviously there are both legal and public relations implications. As an internal team you have to make sure you are marshalling the right resources on the outside, such as outside counsel, in the different subject matter areas that can potentially arise.
With data breaches, you have to look at issues like data privacy and providing fuel for corporate activism. You have to make sure you have a response team in each of the areas and that the teams know the company so you don’t have to bring them up to speed because time is of the essence. That’s where the preparation is critical. You have to formulate a response that is honest and genuine and at the same time, from a legal standpoint, helps rather than hurts.
Do retailers create their crisis communications based on variables about the company, such as corporate culture?
It goes to being honest and genuine. You have to understand your company’s culture and you have to be true to it, whatever that culture may be. At A&F, we made sure that the crisis response team was at a high level in the company and that we had done the advance work in terms of putting the resources together to be able to respond quickly and also in a way that was culturally sensitive. The culture of the Abercrombie family was really important, so it was equally important that we ensured that, when we did say things publicly, we said them in a voice that was consistent with the brand and the company.