By now, you’ve probably heard of the Urban Outfitters PR disaster, the mass Twitter boycott pledge, the dissenting opinions and reactions, and you may have seen the stories on Yahoo, The Consumerist and myriad other places.
As a marketing and web consultant for small businesses, nonprofits, bloggers, and entrepreneurs, I’m fascinated by how this whole thing went down, and I’m determined to learn, learn, learn from it. So, what can business owners (be they a small one-person operation or a Fortune 500) learn from this whole mess?
(Not so hot) biz on biz action
My best bud Amanda Krueger, owner of baking supplies retailer (and a brand new Asheville, North Carolina, cupcakery) Bake It Pretty, has a pretty interesting perspective on the business to business side of things. Amanda says,
As a designer and small business owner for almost 4 years, I’ve been on both sides of the copycat issue several times over, and let me tell you, both sides are miserable. So far, my experiences have been small-biz VS small-biz, but the frustration and angst is just as painful, if not more so, than a big-corporation stealing from the little guy.
Owning a business is hard (if I had a nickel for every time an entrepreneur said that…) We’re proud of what we do and who we are, and we work our fingers to the bone. Due to the stress, sometimes we’re a bit high strung and fiercely protective of our companies. It goes with the territory and yes, I’m going to say it: being a woman can make it a little worse – my apologies to all woman-kind, but there it is. In my experience, this combination of stress and love can sometimes lead to overreacting. I’ve been there, on the acting end and the receiving end, and they are equally terrible. Here are a few of my thoughts on idea theft and how it has affected my life and business.
Bake It Pretty’s advice for responding to copycat criticism
Be human. I wish I’d learned the lesson long ago that, whenever possible, direct communication can solve so many problems. Mud slinging and mixed messages reign supreme on the internet through social media, forums, and email. It’s easy to be misunderstood, misquoted, and overly judgmental (or defensive.) Why do we avoid direct contact? We’ll, it’s hard. Picking up a telephone or meeting someone in person is very real, and intimate, and in-the-moment. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I can’t articulate my true feelings? Of course I’d rather spend hours hiding behind my laptop, crafting a wordy email that I can edit to perfection! In real life we are vulnerable, confused, and (hopefully) honest. Simple misunderstanding and even serious issues can often be sorted out in a 10 minute face-to-face. This is especially true for small business, or heck, any business for that matter. No matter how “big” you get, there should be an individual – a human – that can communicate openly and respond quickly during disagreements. Even if they don’t tell you what you want to hear, at least it’s a person behind the message, not a computer.
History matters. If a person/business seems to have a pattern of imitating you or others, then you have a solid ground to complain, or possibly accuse. If this was an isolated event, could it perhaps have been a rookie error? Innocent mistake? Misunderstanding? You’ll never know unless you ask, and ideally you will approach this honestly, with good intentions, and in-person if at all possible. Start a dialogue. Ask specific questions. Respectfully request any action you would like taken. Indicate that you’d appreciate a reply. Accusations are serious and can be extremely hurtful. Save them for when they are truly warranted. This is much easier to say than it is to do. In the moment, all you see is fire and brimstone and the collapse of your hard-earned empire. Dramatic? Maybe a tad. But I’ve been in that pit, and after the flames died down I wished I’d handled things differently – especially when I see newbie bloggers, crafters, & business owners that are scared to death to write blog posts, or share recipes, or sell their products. They’ve seen the “copycat drama” and they walk on eggshells, petrified of being “too inspired” by someone else. That is a great loss to our creative community.
Schooling the education sphere
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development company for 21st Century educators (she’s also my mom, y’all), put up a reflective post about lessons that educators and school leaders can learn from all this. About deep reflection online, Sheryl says,
We also need to be transparent learners and help our students to find their online voices. Blogging and developing a readership for your blog is a key piece here. Because Amber blogged about this event from Twitter, the message spread further. When your students key in on social injustices that relate to your curriculum, they need to have a place to unpack and reflect on all they are learning as well. You need to be blogging as an educator or parent so that you can give the skills you learn about using your online voice to your students and children. Blogging can also serve as a form of formative assessment that supports self directed learning.
Educators can also leverage these technologies to help their students learn and practice digital literacy.
Trending topics are often hot global events. For example, when the plane crashed into the Hudson River or the recent uprisings in the Middle East, or earthquakes in Japan were happening, social media carried the story until traditional media outlets could get on location. What is shared is real time data – pictures, quotes, videos and live events all from eye witnesses and all for your students to gather, examine, and interpret. Case studies of real time historical events make for powerful curriculum. As educators we should be discussing these new literacies and how to cultivate their use with our students. Our students should also be discussing how to use them with each other. Together we need to make sense of generative ways to leverage these technologies for deep learning in our connected world.
Responding to a crisis – tips for all biz owners
I asked Trish Forant, Community Manager for Radian6, a widely-known social media monitoring service, for some tips that any business owner can incorporate into their crisis communications. Here’s what she had to say:
Here are a few things that any brand can do right away when dealing with a crisis via social media:
- Acknowledge the issue
- Find out what went wrong, ask questions
- Be factual rather than emotional, in other words, don’t get defensive
- Correct any misinformation
- Offer a solution or explain how you’re going resolve the issue
- Respond publicly whenever possible
- Say thank you – a complaint is a gift and an opportunity to make things right
Another thing that might be helpful is to set up a dedicated page on the company site where your community can go to get all the updates in one place and be sure to include links to all your social media outposts as well.
What now for Urban?
Michelle Rogerson, friend, fellow social media marketing consultant, and owner of Reina Communications posted some lessons she thinks Urban Outfitters should take away from this. A major one:
Create goodwill. Urban Outfitters has outraged its customers, who value indie design and artistic expression. It’s going to take a lot of work to repair that reputation damage. Urban Outfitters needs to launch a campaign celebrating independent designers. Perhaps they need a new product line where the designers are showcased and receive credit (similar to how Tiffany celebrates their designers, such as Paloma Picasso and Elsa Peretti). Beyond that, Urban Outfitters needs a longterm strategy for engaging the crafters and designers online who launched this attack on its brand. The damage is repairable if Urban Outfitters is willing to do the right thing.
This would be such a genius idea. Urban Outfitters does sell some indie designers’ art (in a legit way, too), like Heidi Kenney of My Paper Crane. I think trying to spin this story (which was spread by their customers) into a “here’s how we’re gonna change our culture” experience would be so cool, creative, and adaptive.
What do you think? Should Urban Outfitters have responded in the social media sphere (where the story was happening)? Was taking down the necklace from the site and pulling it from stores enough? Did they wait too long? Do they still have a chance to redeem themselves? Tell me in the comments.
Edited to add: Followup post #2