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Public Relations (PR) Crisis PR Fashion

What brands must learn from Balenciaga’s bungled crisis

By Drew Kerr, president and founder

November 29, 2022 | 6 min read

The high-end fashion brand needs to step up and take the right type of action, and this doesn’t include suing your prop house, writes PR pro Drew Kerr.


/ Adobe Stock

Fashion and outrage go together like Lady Gaga and neon green feathers – it’s always been about pushing what’s acceptable and ramping up the buzz. Outrageous ads and stunts are nothing new. While apologies pop up here and there, the social media set moves on pretty quickly to the next topic du jour.

Balenciaga has played that same sassy game, ever since a witch defiantly screamed the company’s name as she was burned at the stake in a 2014 episode of “American Horror Story: Coven.”

But now it finds itself in a reputational predicament that passes more than a strong resemblance to the tragic “Rust” film set shooting, where every party has had their turn being faulted for what went wrong. Both will take a long time to unwind and there may never be a definitive, satisfactory answer.

Everything can become a political talking point (see Ted Cruz and Elmo from “Sesame Street”). In the Internet age, everything is dissected to the finest degree, so if you’re pushing the envelope, you’d better know who you’re going to offend and how big that group is and what to do if they get angry.

This goes a long way in explaining how the two recent Balenciaga campaigns – one featuring children holding shredded teddy bear handbags and the other displaying copies of the Supreme Court’s 2008 child pornography decision – blew up with right-wing media, spread out across the spectrum, and likely caught everybody off guard. Tucker Carlson put one and one together and the brand unintentionally played right into the same QAnon “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that persuaded a man to show up with a rifle at a Washington D.C. pizzeria looking for an imaginary child sex ring in 2016.

With its tail between its legs, Balenciaga repeated many apologies and then with head-spinning speed, initiated a $25 million suit against the campaign’s production company, North Six, as well as set designer Nicholas Des Jardins. Perhaps they moved too fast, hoping it would deflect the bad press.

Time to sue the prop house?

That started the chain of blame. Des Jardins shot back that he rented the legal documents from a prop house and that Balenciaga staff were not only on set during the shoot, but the company chose the images for the campaign. Who will be next to issue a statement, the prop house’s attorneys?

In a rush to put the heat on anybody but themselves, it seems Balenciaga’s legal team barely had time, if any, to vet itself. Everybody was to blame but themselves.

If Balenciaga wants to move past this chaotic mess with its integrity intact, they should announce an internal investigation of every employee on set and who was on the approval chain. It should not be hard to discover what happened between emails and texts.

Mistake or not, did Balenciaga sign off on the final ads? The buck has to stop somewhere and shouldn’t that be with Balenciaga?

If it turns out that they didn’t do the oversight and approvals like they were supposed to, Balenciaga should publicly admit the truth, apologize once more, withdraw their lawsuit, and vow in the future to be more vigilant with their campaign image selection.

Will this be the last time a fashion house, including Balenciaga, will ignite controversy with an ad campaign? Will Dwayne Johnson be overlooked for an Oscar nomination for Black Adam?

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The whole episode’s lesson is not that Balenciaga unwittingly strung potentially sensitive images through two campaigns, causing conservative press to stretch it into something validating a wild conspiracy theory. Instead, it was the company’s approval process seemingly broke somewhere and they pounced too quickly on the wrong parties when they could have conducted a thorough investigation at their own chosen, reasonable pace instead.

Drew Kerr is president of brand communications consultancy Four Corners Communications.

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