Monday, August 18, 2014

Planning for a PR squall

Through an intriguing cross-marketing agreement, Lands End recently sent copies of GQ to its most loyal customers, along with their catalogs. Some were unhappy with the semi-risqué photos of an under-dressed female model. (You can view the image here.) They complained loudly, and L.E.'s CEO apologized. Read about it here:

From a crisis communications viewpoint, Lands End -- inventor of the Squall jacket -- did most things right, especially with CEO Edgar Huber's direct apology: “There are simply no excuses; this was a mistake.” And removing customers' names from the GQ mailing list was a smart move, too.

Cross-promotions involving trendy media are tricky. A case could be made that Conde Nast, GQ's publisher, severely misjudged the clothier's demographic; conservative, middle-of-the-road consumers who want durable fashions. Hint: sweater vests and bulge-hiding swimsuits are a pretty strong clue.

Lands End's customers are aging, and mail-order clothing companies are either closing (see Coldwater Creek) or struggling to reach new consumers (see L.L. Bean's struggling Signature line). And print magazines aren't faring well in a digital age. In theory, these companies could help each other.

But in Lands End's case, the PR team should have been involved before the cross-marketing push. Did the marketing team ask its PR managers to conduct some research? Run a few focus groups? Ask Conde Nast for a peek at the next few months' cover stories?

Probably not.

The real value of having a public relations team isn't in doing crisis communications or drafting a CEO's apologies. The best public relations are those you never see -- because you've engaged the PR team before committing to a marketing strategy.

If the marketing leads at Lands End double-hat as their own PR execs, then they own the blame for this. If they had a separate PR team -- internal or agency -- then shame on Lands End for not getting them involved before the GQ fumble unfolded.