Gap's crisis team tackles child labor controversy

SAN FRANCISCO: Gap Inc. put its crisis PR strategy into motion last week, in an attempt to divert a major controversy after reports surfaced that the company was in business with a vendor that uses child labor.

SAN FRANCISCO: Gap Inc. put its crisis PR strategy into motion last week, in an attempt to divert a major controversy after reports surfaced that the company was in business with a vendor that uses child labor.

Working closely with Brunswick PR, the company responded within hours of the news breaking in London on October 28, said Bill Chandler, Gap's VP of corporate communications. As a part of its response, Marka Hansen, president of Gap North America, appeared on television programs, including Good Morning America and the BBC, condemning child labor and emphasizing the company's zero tolerance for the practice, Chandler said.

"As with any crisis situation, it's critical to move swiftly and strongly and make sure that our points are incorporated in the news coverage," he noted. The company issued a statement from Hansen on October 28 reinforcing Gap's position and its efforts to reiterate the policy with vendors.

A journalist at the UK-based Observer first alerted the company of the issue, Chandler said. After an ongoing investigation, Gap learned that one of its vendors had illegally subcontracted a product for GapKids to a facility in India that allegedly used child labor. It has since pulled the product in question from its stores.

Chandler said media coverage of the issue has incorporated Gap's key messages, which include the company's prohibition of child labor, its response and investigation, its upcoming November 2 meeting with Indian vendors to reinforce the policy, and its cessation of business with 23 vendors for violating its code of conduct last year.

"[Our response] was a very broad effort to make sure that every news organization would be able to talk to us directly, that we would be able to provide on-camera business leaders who could respond and describe both our outrage over what happened and describe the prohibition of child labor that we have in place," Chandler said.

The company also sent its code of vendor conduct to reporters and to organizations that were issuing statements about the industry's child labor problem, he added.

"Our priority throughout this has been to work around the clock in a global approach to make sure that we shared the key messages," Chandler explained. "We worked 24/7 with both in-house and agency support to coordinate a global effort" that targeted consumers, shareholders, and the media.

This is not the first time the retailer has come under scrutiny for its labor practices. In 2004, Gap admitted that child labor, along with other poor working conditions, had been an issue at many of its global factories.

Tim Tinker, senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, acknowledged the effectiveness of Gap's response, but said it needs to establish a decisive plan that prevents another reoccurrence.

"I think it did a good job speaking to the policy and issues surrounding this controversy, but it probably could have balanced it out with values messages," he said.

"The more strategic consideration is will [this] affect the consumer's buying decisions," Tinker added. "Typically, crises of this nature come and go at such a pace that it may remind them of what their expectations [of companies] need to be. But in terms of influencing buying decisions, I'm not sure I've ever seen the data to support that."

Yet the controversy gives Gap the opportunity to position itself as an industry leader by emphasizing the importance of the health and safety of children, or by building a coalition of retailers against child labor, he offered.

Gene Grabowski, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications, agreed that Gap must now take proactive measures. "In crises like these, consumers want to see concrete action, not words," he warned.

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