Turn Signals

Occasionally we use our turn signals and go in a different direction. The topic can be on anything– usually on something I’ve witnessed or heard in the news — and the posts are brief (well, usually!).


Urban Outfitters Reaches a New Low  September 16, 2014

As a scholar of the events that took place at Kent State on May 4, 1970, and as a public relations professional, I can’t let the latest controversy surrounding Urban Outfitters go by without comment. The trouble is I’m not sure where to even start because I’m so appalled and angry; however, that’s what this page, Turn Signals, is all about – a place for me to comment on things that aren’t associated with road trip destinations.

The Urban Outfitters story hit a fever pitch yesterday. If you’re not familiar with what happened, the store was selling what it called a “one-of-a-kind vintage” Kent State sweatshirt with what appeared to be faux blood stains on it, an obvious nod to May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a protest, killing four students and wounding nine others, some of whom weren’t even involved in the protest. I have several thoughts on this:

This is a new standard for insensitivity.  Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversy. In the past, it has sold shirts that seemingly promoted anorexia and teenage drinking. It’s also not the first time the company has tried to make a profit on death, having sold a T-shirt that evoked memories of the Holocaust. My first thought when I saw this insensitive product was of those who were directly affected by the Kent State shootings. I’m an acquaintance of one of those who was wounded and I’m Facebook friends with Laurel Krause, sister of Allison Krause, one of the students who was killed. How awful for them to see something so crass trivialize a horrendous event in their lives. The administration at Kent State apparently agreed, stating, “We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today.”

There was no apology.  Yes, Urban Outfitters issued what it said was an apology on Twitter; however, it was a classic “nonapology,” a strategy companies use to appear they are saying they’re sorry while actually not taking responsibility for their actions. The company explained that the red spots on the shirt were actually “discoloration” and that there was never an intention to allude to the shootings. As Laurel Krause posted on Facebook, “Did you know the problem with this sweatshirt is that we’re perceiving it negatively?” That’s what the Urban Outfitters statement said: “We deeply regret that the item was perceived negatively.” It also apologized for “any offense” that the shirt may have caused, basically putting the blame on the public for being too sensitive and perceiving things the wrong way. The company offered a follow-up statement to TIME that was better; however, it was also a bit too late — and, yes, Urban Outfitters, you’re sincerity is questionable.

This is not public relations.  As a public relations practitioner and as a member of the Public Relations Society of America, I’m obligated to be a watchdog for the profession. What Urban Outfitters did was not public relations, so it’s offensive and hurtful to me when I read comments talking about how what has happened is the result of “immoral public relations.” Public relations is about gaining understanding and acting in a way that is mutually beneficial between an organization and the publics it serves. It should not put the needs of the company over the best interest of the public. Coincidentally, September is Ethics Awareness Month in our profession – yes, we focus on ethics and even have a Code of Ethics. It’s unfortunate that the actions of one company can taint an entire profession. As an aside, a quick search of the PRSA membership directory didn’t produce any members who work at Urban Outfitters.

Urban Outfitters doesn’t care. Urban Outfitters wouldn’t keep putting out products like this if it wasn’t benefiting the company. The company wants to get publicity and we’re giving it to them – lots of it. I cringe knowing that by writing a blog post, I’m contributing to the attention the company is getting. Yet, I still do because I’m pissed. #boycottUrbanOutfitters blew up on Twitter yesterday (certainly not the first boycott attempt), but will people really boycott the store? Perhaps those who are upset, like me, wouldn’t shop there anyway. In fact, the company’s target market most likely doesn’t even know what happened at Kent State that May day 44 years ago. Urban Outfitters stock did fall yesterday – 39 cents a share from Friday’s closing; one report pegs this loss at $52 million. However, today’s stock action saw prices start to rebound. It is interesting that this latest controversy occurred less than a week after Urban Outfitters released the results of its second fiscal quarter showing slow sales and predicting more of the same. Am I cynical about the timing of the sweatshirt release? Hell, yeah.

As angry as I am right now, I am an eternal optimist and always attempt to try to find something good in even the worst circumstance. I hope that those not familiar with what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970, will take the time to see what all the fuss is about. At least then, perhaps, maybe some understanding will be achieved that Urban Outfitters has ignored.


T-shirts, Bamboo and Condoms  September 30, 2011

I’ve been going to concerts since 1965.   The one I went to last night, however, was different for two reasons. The first was the beautiful simplicity of the concert.  Jackson Browne walked out on stage, sat down and started to play.  There was no warm-up band; heck, there wasn’t even a backup band.  Just 16 acoustic guitars and a keyboard sitting on two oriental rugs.  The concert was wonderful!

Even more striking was what was for sale at the event.  Among the concert T-shirts (which were a much more reasonable $20 instead of the usual $40) were bamboo utensils and condoms.  Browne is a well-known environmental activist and campaigns for, among other things, the reduction of plastic use.  I was told by the vendor that Browne sells the bamboo utensils to urge people to stop using plastic ones and reduce their carbon footprint.  And then there were the condoms — that was definitely a first.  With rock music focusing so much on sex, what a smart idea to promote safe practice.  How refreshing to see an artist peddling something beyond just his image on a shirt or concert program.  Kudos, Jackson!


Are You Kidding Me?   April 1, 2010

It’s 1 a.m. and I’m on the road in Chicago.  Because I’ve been traveling, I haven’t been paying attention to the news.  Now I turn on CNN and learn about the death of Phoebe Prince, a student at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts (I know — it’s embarrassing I am just now finding out about this).  Anderson Cooper’s coverage mentioned a news release issued by the school district; I haven’t been able to find an online version, but based on the coverage, it was yet another example of a vacant response from an organization.

In trying to locate the release, I went to the school district’s Web site, which had no acknowledgement of the tragedy that had taken place.  When will organizations — and people (Tiger, hint hint) — realize that they must be responsive when a crisis occurs?  Hiding behind vague language and “no comment” (which the school district superintendent resorted to after some tough questions) is simply not acceptable.  People want the truth and they want an apology, if appropriate (and there are many ways to apologize without legal ramifications).

Wake up, people!

Polls are a Disservice to Society  November 3, 2009

Tomorrow is Election Day — the day when your opinion REALLY counts.  For weeks, I have been listening to the media report on polling results on a daily basis.  It doesn’t matter what the polls say; it’s only a news story.  Public relations practitioners know that behavior is the ultimate measure.  Polls only present a snapshot in time — what people SAY they are going to do, not what people have done.  Don’t be misled by polls — don’t become apathetic if your candidate is “trailing” and don’t think you vote doesn’t matter if your candidate is “double digits ahead.”  The only poll that matters is your vote tomorrow.  Go do it.

John McCain is not my friend!   October 8, 2008

This comment has nothing to do with my preference in the upcoming presidential election (I don’t think I even have a preference), but from a rhetorical standpoint, John McCain must stop ending EVERYTHING he says with “my friend.”  It’s truly driving me crazy!

Change the Lipstick!  September 12, 2008

Enough news talk about the comment Barak Obama made about lipstick on a pig. I don’t like the guy, but I don’t think he was intentionally slamming Sarah Palin. This is an example of why we teach pubic relations students to not use cliches.


4 Responses

  1. I am in complete agreement. The guy’s an idiot, but he didn’t mean it. Someone should have been keeping a better eye on his competition and realizing that people would connect his comments with her speeches.

  2. I wasn’t really sure where to leave this comment but here it goes! I like this “turn signals” addition to the blog. Its nice because you can digress when you have a different idea. Your posts are really informational and I really like the blog. We talked in class the other day about how commitment can be an issue, and it really looks like you are committed! By the way, I started really thinking about my blog the day we went to the PRSA conference as well. There was too much information for me to handle all pent up in my head and not do anything about it.

    I love traveling, so I will definitely stay in tune with “The Off Ramp” even though the semester is over. : )

  3. Yes, I liked the “Turn Signals” idea so I would have a place to vent — guess life has been pretty boring since the election! I’ll be posting the second part of the current post in a couple days — picking up the pictures tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I like the turn signals page and how you relate your opinions to the public relations mindset. Thanks!

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