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Can Zara be forgiven for latest anti-Semitic blunder?

Social media has demonstrated its power again after Zara came under intense criticism for selling a garment that closely resembled outfits worn by Jewish holocaust prisoners.

First spotted by an Israeli journalist, online chatter quickly grew with many decrying the fashion chain’s error.

Now with the offending item off the shelves the incident provides some powerful lessons on handling crises - particularly those generated by an organisation’s own decisions rather than external factors:

  • Be aware of cultural sensitivities.

Social media can make a misjudged product or service global in a matter of minutes. From a reputational point of view businesses need to consider how products will play out in all markets. Nike’s ‘black and tan’ Guinness inspired trainers for St Patricks Day were another case in point. The launch caused uproar when it was pointed out that ‘Black and Tans’ was a slang name for an early 20th century British paramilitary unit

  • Admit and apologise for your mistakes.

It’s easy to try and rationalise why a decision was taken but if the tide of opinion is against your organisation, don’t try and justify it. If it’s offended people and your reputation is at stake then stepping up, accepting the criticism and genuinely apologising is the right thing to do. To its credit Zara has apologised for its latest blunder and has also taken the offending item off sale. The most important thing is that the apology is genuine AND the organisation learns from its mistakes.

  • Don’t make a bad situation worse.

All too frequently I see organisations, in an effort to shore up reputations, say exactly the things they shouldn’t. All eyes are on you when responding to a crisis so appropriate choice of words and medium is critical. In its apology Zara’s Israeli office explained the item would be ‘removed from shelves across the world and destroyed’. However, the Hebrew word they used for ‘destroyed’ is also used when describing Nazi genocidal practices – a terrible misstep considering the initial crisis.

In a climate where there will always be people looking for the next error of judgement or mistake by a big brand it is virtually impossible to make the right decision every time. However, learning from previous mistakes (Zara had a similar incident with its ‘swastika’ bag) and putting in checks and balances to reduce the chance of them happening again is key.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the Zara incident is to think like your foes. What would they seize upon to paint you in a bad light and what could you do from an operational and communication perspective to remove or reduce the impact of those risks? Perhaps if Zara had taken this step then the offending item may never have reached the light of day.

Alex Johnson is a consultant at Insignia Communications. You can follow her on Twitter @Alex_Insignia.

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