The Balenciaga Affair

The background

On 16th November 2022 a European fashion brand called Balenciaga posted a series of images on social media which started to go viral.

They showed images of children holding toy bears. The toy bears were wearing what can only be described as sexualised (BDSM) clothing. 

The images quickly took hold online as they were shared by people across social networks.

The company deleted all the images but the ball had already started rolling.

TV channels joined the growing uproar and then things got worse.

People noticed in a second earlier campaign that pictures showed a handbag sitting on top of court documents. When people zoomed in on the text of the documents it revealed they were papers from a US Supreme Court ruling related to indecent images of children.

But it got worse. Images on the wall showed drawings of children which some found unsettling.

Balenciaga removed the campaigns and started to release statements.

They said the choice of clothing items, “should not have been featured with children”.

The company said, “The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.”

The company said it was carrying out investigations and strengthening checks and controls around its creative processes.

They also said they had launched legal action in respect of the first campaign and the team behind it.

It added: “We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute.”

So what went wrong and what could or should they have done? 

What went wrong?

Let’s try to forget the moral aspects of this story for a moment as they have been well-discussed elsewhere. Let’s focus instead on this purely from a “cold” PR perspective.

As a former journalist for many years, this is a gold mine of a story.

I know how I would have handled this from a press point of view. 

It’s enticing. It’s got the shock factor. It’s got “children”. It’s got fashion labels going too far in an industry where boundaries are often pushed. It’s got rich people wearing expensive clothes being embarrassed. Parents trying to protect their children, fearful of over-sexualisation. It’s gold dust in particular for media outlets and groups focused on “family values” stories.

When the story first broke Balenciaga appeared to go on the attack talking about legal action. It was hard to know whether they had sanctioned the images or not despite the initial comments about learning from the affair. 

But it’s hard for anyone interested in PR to believe this wasn’t signed off. These sorts of things normally go thorough a proper approval process, or at least should do.

Of course, we will never really know exactly what happened, so let’s look at a couple of scenarios.

It was nothing to do with them

Let’s say they really had not been involved and someone had released these images without permission. It doesn’t look like this is the case but it’s an interesting case study and one any organization could face from a malicious ex-employee or contractor.

In which case they’d want to say what they know (without naming names) and say it quickly. 

Stick to the facts. For example. “we did not sanction these images and we are attempting to find out who did.”

Just like with Will Smith’s Oscars fiasco, then you want to go quiet. Don’t get caught up in any debate or do any media interviews until you are sure what happened or you are ready to respond. Wait for the noise to die down a bit. Stick to the same lines.

But, here’s the caveat. Address any new myths which start to gain traction with a short sharp fact if they can be dismissed. Keep the response tight. Don’t fudge it. Just state the facts and do it fast as soon as possible as soon as you notice a theme gaining traction. You’ll have to decide what “real traction” is for you. It’s that point on the curve between the point where responding would amplify the story (something you don’t want) and where it is starting to do harm.

They did mess up

So what about what appears to have happened, that someone somewhere messed up?

Step 1: Address the existence of the story

If we look at Balenciaga’s initial comments they used a fairly standard response. They said they

  1. needed to review what happened and
  2. made it clear that they condemn child-related crimes and activities. 

This is a very common structure to use for business and government. The two-part statement. 1) we condemn X and 2) we are reviewing. 

The idea of course is to dismiss the main accusation while saying “give us time to find out what happened”.

It is important to stick to the facts.

They could have claimed that they knew nothing about it, but the problem with lying in the modern era is that the truth will eventually come out and internally, just imagine the difficulty in trying to suppress and manage the truth.

So stick to the facts.

Step 2: Shoot down any blatant myths that gain traction

The next step then is the same as before, to go quiet beyond issuing short factual statements.

The only caveat again is if a myth, which you can already disprove, starts to gain traction, take action. If you can disprove it, say so in a very short factual statement. No more than a sentence. Again you would need to consider the point to do this on the curve between avoiding amplification and the point at which that new myth is doing damage.

It’s interesting to see that one of those involved in the photoshoot with the bears stated on his Instagram that he had nothing to do with the choice of bears, or children.

Step 3: Don’t engage beyond blunt facts

Again, there is no point engaging in debate online or journalist questions.

There is a temptation to do this but you can not win these arguments with the press or the people making the noise on social media so there is no value in trying.

Yes, the damage is being done but speaking up before knowing the facts will only fuel the fire and you can’t improve the situation by fudging the issue. 

Some people might suggest giving vague statements to try and show you are at least “talking” and sorry. It can feel like you are sending out a message that you are “not hiding”.

But one of the problems of trying to fudge (and I can speak from experience on trying to do this myself once), is that if you fudge, or try to spin blatantly, not only does it leave space for speculation but also begs for accusations of failing to respond or deliberately trying to avoid the questions.

Step 4: When you know the facts

So what do you do when you know the facts? 

Let’s take what Balenciaga came out with. They clearly decided their creative director Demna Gvasalia was largely at fault. They could make him fall on his sword and resign. 

Certainly in political PR making someone take the blame, who then resigns, is often enough to move the story on as the focus of blame goes with them. This is especially true when a figure is already prominent in the general press and likely to remain so over the coming weeks.

For example, if a government minister responsible for health during a health crisis does something that distracts from that message then they will be in the spotlight every day and it will distract from their work. It’s best for them to go, at least for now.

But I think what Balenciaga have on their side here is a very fickle public perception of fashion. The reality is, the story will fade and in time become just yet another fashion crisis but they couldn’t just ignore it.

The blame game

On Friday 2nd Dec 2022, a couple of statements were released then.

Interestingly they were released at the end of the day on a Friday just before the weekend. While media is 24/7 these days, this used to be a way to bury news as everyone went off for the weekend but it will still help to dampen it a little.

Demna Gvasalia (Balenciaga creative director) released a statement saying, “I want to personally apologise for making the wrong artistic choice”.

It goes on but the gist of it is that he is taking responsibility for what happened.

He tries to draw blame to him away from the company and others. He accepts it was his bad choices that led to this. 

The statement is very factual. It doesn’t try to justify anything as that would provide people with more opportunity to attack.

It addresses the key criticism such as the choice of clothing in the images. The idea is to put a line under it and take the blame and try to kill the story as much as possible.

He also made an interesting comment that he needs time to learn from this. This was the same comment used by Will Smith and of course the goal is to ask for people to leave them alone to allow the story to fade.

Balenciaga also issued a very factual Instagram update which restated many of the same points. It wasn’t a letter, it is simply a series of statements. It included interestingly that…

“Balenciaga has decided not to pursue litigation” in other words the legal action over the images has been dropped.

Why would they drop that?

The damage is done. A court case would keep the story alive and repeated over and over again in the fashion world and press.

Winning in court over the images would not exonerate them even if they “won”. It would simply cause more damage by bringing up the story again and again. 

What now?

So, should they respond more now?

In my view, no, unless a myth gains traction which can be proved wrong in a short sharp statement.

In a vacuum, there is always a chance of myths gaining traction. But any statement should be very short. You have said your piece. It’s time to lay low.

There is then an element of luck involved. The most minor story could lead the news agenda on social and traditional media for days if nothing else is happening. But it could be buried instantly if something else happens. The goal now is to stay under the radar until this happens.
Could they have prevented this?

Well, frankly it was a bit silly. Let’s be honest. Maybe that is just my view.

While pushing the envelope with adults can always draw criticism, this was about children.

I nearly released a picture once with a newspaper in the background with a clear headline that said something unpleasant. Luckily someone else spotted it. But there were only 2 of us that day. Balenciaga should have had a team reviewing this. Maybe no one spoke up but that is another conversation. 

Is the damage done? 

As with all stories like this, while there will be a loud and vocal outcry the majority of people won’t care. Again putting aside the moral case, that’s the reality whether it’s fashion or politics or whatever.

The firm is bound to see a reduction in sales but will it be long term and crucially will it be with their customers?

The firm needs to look not at the noise or controversy but at the sales figure.

If their customers stop buying, maybe Demna will need to go after all. Maybe a statement won’t be enough.

We shall see.