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Pedestrians pass in front of Urban Outfitters on 6th Ave. and 14th street in Manhattan.
Pedestrians pass in front of Urban Outfitters on 6th Ave. and 14th street in Manhattan.

Grow: Mia Pearson

Urban Outfitters failed to engage community Add to ...

Word travels quickly when you’ve got a crisis on your hands.

Clothing retailer Urban Outfitters learned that social media is more than just a conversation around engaging its brand champions.

Stevie Koerner, an independent jewellery maker from Chicago, wrote a blog post last week accusing Urban Outfitters of ripping off her design. News quickly spread on Twitter, creating a social media storm and calls for a boycott.

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Users flocked online and took advantage of the retailer’s Twitter and Facebook pages to express their support for Ms. Koerner, and demand a response from the company. By the end of the week, Urban Outfitters was a trending topic on Twitter, and its Facebook page became a source of negative criticism.

The retailer failed to adequately address the issue online, igniting a fury that generated media coverage in the United States, Canada and the Britain. Instead of responding to Ms. Koerner’s comments and her following of supporters, the retailer resorted to a single tweet stating that it was investigating the issue. It did not follow up and keep the community updated on its findings, though it has crafted a response on its website.

Too many companies are more than happy to engage in social-media marketing campaigns when things are going well, or when they have a positive product or service to promote, but the minute things turn negative they retreat to traditional forms of communications. In the new era of openness and transparency, tightly scripted holding statements and limited updates will not be an effective long-term strategy.

While Urban Outfitters quickly removed the product in question from its website, the company failed to be open about the process. Regardless of whether Ms. Koerner’s allegations are true, she was portrayed as the hero and gained a tremendous amount of exposure for her company. Urban Outfitters, on the other hand, was left with a negative reputation that will take some time to build back.

This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed an individual taking on a major brand through social media. The incident bears similarity to last summer’s PR nightmare involving Air Canada, when the airline damaged a wheelchair belonging to a 10-year-old boy with a terminal illness. After a family member tweeted the incident, the airline’s Twitter feed flooded with comments and criticisms, but Air Canada remained silent, failing to address an issue that resulted in negative media coverage across Canada.

As a small-business owner, it’s important to understand the power of social media as a tool for communicating your brand’s message, and for responding to negative comments and criticism when it happens. The key to remaining transparent is actively engaging with your community, creating a dialogue of respect and being consistent. Be prepared with a crisis plan to deal with conflicts that arise online, and dedicate your platforms to responding to the issue.

News travels quickly over social media channels, which can either help or hinder your brand. Ignoring negative comments warrants suspicion, and it can cast your brand in an unfamiliar spotlight.

Listen to what is being said about your brand online, and take the necessary steps to respond to it in a timely and open fashion.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic . She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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