The Gap: Manifestly Smart in Dousing a PR Fire

Gap, Inc. neatly sidestepped a potential PR nightmare last week when it pulled a controversial T-shirt from its stores. Native American groups pointed out that the T-shirt printed with the slogan “Manifest Destiny” celebrated a belief espoused by 19th century American settlers that served as justification for land-grab, slavery, and other atrocities committed against native peoples.

The shirt went on sale on September 19th but didn’t really hit the news until the American Indian Movement Southern California (AIM So Cal) Chapter launched a petition the week of Oct. 8th, securing over 5,700 supporters within a few days. On Oct. 15th, Gap agreed to remove the T-shirt from its online and brick-and-mortar stores, a move that effectively doused consumer unrest before it ignited into a full-fledged PR conflagration.

Online coverage by a limited number of media outlets did not move into mainstream print, or get repeated on TV and radio. Competing for attention with the buzz around presidential debates, World Series baseball playoffs (go Giants!), and Lance Armstrong’s implosion, the issue fizzled out. There was a problem related to the use of a rather obscure historical term (obscure unless you’re a history buff like me!); Gap reacted quickly; so what’s the story? In fact, the T-shirt didn’t even figure into media coverage of Gap’s October 16th quarterly earnings report, which mainly focused on a restructuring that caused the share price to rise slightly.

The chart below reflects the volume of social media commentary over the period from the T-shirt launch to a date a week after the Gap decision. (Full disclosure: The social media analytics tool is from Attensity, a Sterling Communications client.) Chatter peaked at the time the petition was reported and peaked again when the shirt was pulled, but has gradually decreased over time.


The pie chart below shows sentiment expressed in social media posts the week between the petition launch and Gap’s move to discontinue the shirt.


The second pie chart covers social sentiment the week after Gap announced it would pull the T-shirt, as media coverage dribbled away. The share of negative sentiment dropped by 18 percent from the prior week.


In the days before social media, this issue would probably have taken many more weeks to resolve. Gap was smart to jump on it as quickly as it did. The savvy folks there recognized that this was turning into a PR battle they could not win. The longer the story remained in the news, the more prominent it would become in search engine results, the more damage to their reputation. (Search on the terms “Abercrombie & Fitch” and “Chinese laundry” and you’ll see what I mean — and that example is 10 years old.) I commend Gap for recognizing the need for swift action once the story trickled into The Guardian in the UK. As pointed out, Gap made its announcement within an hour of the posting. (For some advice on managing crisis communications, check out “10 Tips for Effective Crisis Management” by my colleague Ross Coyle.)

This is not to say the controversy has completely evaporated. AIM So Cal has requested Gap discontinue additional shirts which AIM feels “glorify westward expansion into Native American territory” and, among other demands, wants profits from the T-shirt sales to go to the legal defense of Leonard Peltier. However, in terms of the PR damage to Gap — the fire is reduced to smoking embers.

Thanks to Jordan Hubert (@jahubert) for using the Attensity sentiment analysis tool to research social reaction!

Lisa Hawes can be reached at Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.