Friday, January 29, 2010

Silence is not Golden

Earlier this month, New York Times writer Jim Dwyer did a piece on how H&M Clothing was shredding and disposing of clothes at its 34th Street store in the dead of winter rather than giving them to the less fortunate. Dwyer's Dickensian opening painted a vivid portrait of what seemed an uncaring corporation:

"In the bitter cold on Monday night, a man and woman picked apart a pyramid of clear trash bags, the discards of the HM clothing store that reigns in blazing plate-glass glory on 34th Street, just east of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

At the back entrance on 35th Street, awaiting trash haulers, were bags of garments that appear to have never been worn. And to make sure that they never would be worn or sold, someone had slashed most of them with box cutters or razors, a familiar sight outside H & M's back door. The man and woman were there to salvage what had not been destroyed."

Although Dwyer's piece went on to point out a similar situation at a nearby Wal-Mart, the striking association of H&M – a high-profile clothing retailer – with a unseemly practice is what stuck, particularly reinforced by the line the followed the description of H&M's clothing shredding: "It is winter. A third of the city is poor. And unworn clothing is being destroyed nightly."

Why did it happen? The Times was unable to find out before running the story, since a call to the H&M store manager was referred to corporate headquarters. From there, the inquiry apparently went black-hole, since 10 attempts from the Times by phone or email went unanswered.

Ten attempts?? One or even two I might understand; it was around the holidays, with people most likely taking vacation time. But ten? Clearly, I think the H&M corporate communications response mechanism was not working properly and they paid a price, most likely higher than any revenue lost by not selling the clothing.

Looking at H&M's web site, it appears the company is committed to socially-responsible business practices and is an active, involved corporate citizen that donates clothes regularly. The shredding may have been a misunderstanding, an aberration or just a plain old mistake. But none of that came across in the Times article because there was no response from the company. Silence was definitely not golden. (Note: according to the company web site, H&M's Corporate Social Responsibility Manager was on leave when the story broke.) I recall seeing a one-sentence reference to "We're investigating" coupled with a plea to re-tweet, but the damage was already done.

The Public Relations lesson here: always be sure your media response mechanism is in good working order, especially during times when staff might be short and particularly in this world of social-media driven conversations that extend the reach of news coverage. Respond immediately, even if you can't give complete details yet. Case in point: although I read the Times online regularly, I did not see this story the day it originally appeared. It was brought to my attention by two of my PR students whom I follow on Twitter.