Blog

Ralph Lauren’s Olympic Uniform Controversy: The Right Way to Handle a PR Foul-Up

Jul 20, 2012

By: Vanessa Horwell, Founder & Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk

Ever since the media flap that erupted when ABC News reported on Ralph Lauren outfitting the US Olympic team with uniforms made in China, I’ve been scrutinizing everything in our office to see where it’s been made.

The keyboard I’m typing on and the mouse I’m using? Made in China. The mousepad? China. The phone on my desk, the chair I’m sitting on and much of the stuff in our office-supply closet: China. China. And, yes, you guessed it, China.

According to Mark Arena of PR Verdict, Ralph Lauren, the go-to designer for US Olympic uniforms since the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, has been outsourcing these functions to China all along – in fact, most of the objects that surround us every day are made there – but no one really bothers about it.

So why now? Politics.

It’s a presidential election year, and President Obama’s re-election campaign has been relentlessly hammering the presumptive Republican nominee, one-percenter and car-elevator owner Mitt Romney, over his record of outsourcing jobs to other countries while at the helm of private equity firm Bain Capital and as Massachusetts’ governor. All of a sudden, the heated debate over outsourcing of American jobs has created a PR landmine for Ralph Lauren.

Would people have cared if it wasn’t for the Olympics? Probably not. Or if they did, it wouldn’t have landed as lead story on network news.

An All-American identity is the keystone in RL’s branding arch, so to speak. Its main emblem, apart from the horse-and-rider Polo logo, is the American flag. It is Americana at the very core. On the flagship website, you see the waving Stars and Stripes in the words RALPH LAUREN, just above a photo of the much-discussed uniforms, which the company says it is proud to create. Ralph Lauren went wrong because it forgot that when you’re in the business of selling Americana, it helps to be perceived as 100% red-white-and blue. (Still) Red China garments just don’t feel right. And in an election year, politics, like the Olympics, is a game that attracts many spectators. This time Ralph Lauren got mixed up in a pre-game tussle that didn’t need to happen.

That said, if you build up your brand as a paragon of American-ness while outsourcing the making of Team USA uniforms to China during an election year – where outsourcing is a major issue – your PR team shouldn’t be shocked when the proverbial **** hits the fan.

I half-agree with Mark Arena’s verdict that RL handled this well. Yes, it didn’t ignore the issue. It acknowledged the problem and promised to rectify it in time for 2014’s Winter Olympics.

But the damage has been done. “Sorry” doesn’t cut it. And let’s face it, in our mile-a-minute, tweet-a-micro-second culture, is anyone going to remember this little PR snag – or its lesson – on Friday February 7, 2014, at the opening of the next Winter Olympics, a whopping 817,000+ minutes away? My Magic 8 Ball says ‘no.’ More than likely it will leave another company open to similar slipups. Even so, companies need to remember that nothing they do happens in a vacuum and often products and promotions that bear no obvious linkage to other events, be it politics or world news, somehow becomes relevant. It also doesn’t hurt to remember election year rally-around-the-flag sensationalism.

As for our office? At least our desks and chairs come from Sweden-based Ikea. Even here, some 22% of the brand’s inventory is made in China. But unlike RL and petty politicians, I doubt any of our clients will mind which nations constructed our furniture – Olympic and election year or not.

Contact Us

Sign up for our insights on the convergence of business and PR