I’m a celebrity (in crisis): Get me out of here!

by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

Three years ago, I wrote a short piece on the mishandling of the PR crisis that embroiled Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana in 2015 following an interview they did with Italian magazine, Panorama. In it the fashion duo spoke out against gay couples having the opportunity to adopt children in rather crude terms (read more here). It was a disaster yet despite the fallout and obvious damage to their personal reputations, it was one that the pair failed to learn from.

In November 2018, they struck crisis gold once more – only this time they infuriated and aliennated an entire nation. But it wasn’t just any nation – it was China, the world’s third largest luxury brand market. What did they do that was so bad to p**s off 1.4 billion people?

The brand was gearing up for a multi-million-pound fashion show in Shanghai, and to create a buzz Dolce & Gabanna placed a series of ads across social media and key magazines. These ads were meant as a ‘tribute’ to China – a display of their “love and passion” for the country, as they put it.

One such advert depicted a Chinese woman using chopsticks to eat a pizza and an oversized Italian pastry (cannolo), accompanied with the narrative, “Is it too huge for you?” A backlash quickly ensued and the ads were accused of being antiquated, sexist and racist.

Gabbana defended critics via his Instagram account and stated that if people take issue with the ads, that is for them to deal with. OK, not exactly the best approach and had he left it there the chances are that the storm would invariably have blown over soon. But Gabbana couldn’t resist the urge to take things further…and boy did he do that.

He then proceeded to label Chinese people as ‘dog eaters’ and went so far as to say that from now on he will refer to China as “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.”

He later claimed that his account had been hacked, and so too did the official Dolce & Gabbana Instagram account but this is unlikely. Moreover, the controversy isn’t surprising – the duo do have history.

So, what can we learn from this about how to manage a PR crisis or threat to the organisation’s reputation?

When something happens to destabilise the corporate ship, it is important to remain steadfast to the organisation’s long-term objectives and not order a change of course to defend against the current storm. As Bill Clinton, in an interview with Alistair Campbell, said: “Too many decision makers define their reality according to that day’s media. It is almost always a mistake.” He is right.

In an age when voices can be heard and opinions vented across a plethora of mediums, the decision to react or not is to be carefully considered: is the issue important and in line with the organisation’s overall strategy? Or is it a curveball that could throw it off course – pushing it into a direction it doesn’t necessarily want to be heading? In other words, is it a distraction or does it demand your full focus?

Too many organisations think that the only way to quell any criticism against them is to issue a media response that communicates a statement of intent into how they will seek to make what is seemingly wrong, better.

But such statements tend to be defensive or emotional and based more on second-guessing what others may think of them, rather than recognising what action (or non-action) is required in each situation. They run the risk of the organisation’s overall message becoming diluted; thereby, undermining their entire communications strategy.

By becoming embroiled in a game of applying quick fixes to fresh cuts that appear here, there and everywhere you run the risk of losing sight of what is important and veering off the course that has been set. That will only damage your reputation and ensure the dark clouds remain over your head for longer than you think. So, stay on message and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by unexpected events.