By now we’ve all seen the image. An adorable little black boy, posing on the official H&M retail site, in a green hoodie, with the words, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” scrawled across the front. If you’re one of the maybe few who somehow missed this story, I assure you that that is not a typo. Unsurprisingly, reactions were swift and the backlash very loud, with a number of celebrities, including music star The Weeknd and Grey’s Anatomy star, Jesse Williams speaking out against the retail giant.
Initially, I planned to approach this blog post the same way I have for other brands and companies that have had public relations missteps and that is to analyze how they handled the situation from a crisis communication perspective. And while I intend to focus on that aspect, I feel it necessary to share my immense disappointment and frustration in H&M, not just as a black woman but also as a strategic communicator.
Let’s face it, H&M is a global brand and that means, nothing is done in isolation at that company. There must be multiple chains of command and processes and various individuals and teams that either approve or veto various fashion items, campaigns, photo shoots, etc. My point is that this picture didn’t just end up on their website by complete accident or one person’s poor error in judgment.
Multiple people approved this child being fashioned in this hoodie, approved the images from the photographer, and approved the ad. So it is frustratingly mind-boggling to me that through that whole process there wasn’t one person who realized the racial implications and offensiveness of the image – really? It is 2018 and there is simply no excuse for someone to tell me that they are so ignorant to the racial history and undertones towards black people in the U.S. and around the world that you do not understand the connotations of using the word monkey with a black person’s image. And that a giant global retailer like H&M would make such a bubbling error is inexplicable. Again, because there is no way that this happened without multiple individuals seeing it and approving it.
An interesting irony of this incident is that it was only two short years ago that H&M was being praised for their brilliant “Close the Loop” campaign, which celebrated diversity. The campaign featured models of various shapes, gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc. And yet, today we are here, where an entire creative team at H&M, including marketers, advertisers, photographers, and communicators, saw nothing wrong in an image of a black boy wearing a shirt with the words monkey in a jungle scrawled across its front.
What this incident has truly shown me and hopefully shows others is that while immense strides have been made in the world regarding the issues of race and diversity, we are not even close to where we should be. And more dialogue and conversation recognizing that we in many ways are still failing dramatically needs to happen. It needs to happen in all walks of life and it needs to happen in our industry. Because the fact is women and minorities are still underrepresented in top leadership positions around the globe.
I don’t think for a second that H&M intended to be offensive with this image. However, that’s what makes this issue even more telling and pressing. That so many really didn’t realize that it was and that is because there are still so many deep-rooted issues that we are not fully addressing as we should.
I was pleased to see that there seemed to some greater understanding of these deep-rooted issues from H&M in their second and more official statement, in which they stated, “Racism and bias in any shape or form, conscious or unconscious, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable and need to be eradicated from society. In this instance we have not been sensitive enough to this agenda.”
It was certainly a much better statement than their initial one which was pitiful at best, making the grave error of noting anyone that “may have been offended” by the image. One of the most important rules of crisis communication is to simply own your mistake and apologize without qualifiers. There was no may since it was clear many people were unquestionably offended. I also think H&M missed another significant step in crisis communication and that’s communicating with their audience what steps they would take to ensure that something like this never happens again. Hopefully, that plan is being implemented as we speak and they just forgot to let us, the public, know about it.
The greatest lesson I can say that we as public relations practitioners and communicators can take out of this incident is that we need to do more. Do more as individuals, as teams, as companies and as an industry to where hopefully, incidents like this don’t happen again.