Crisis communications – Fashion profiting from tragedy

A little less than a month ago, my daughter who attends Newtown High School, sent me an image which was posted on Instagram of a torn-up sweatshirt with Sandy Hook printed on it. She said everyone is so upset – it took me a minute to realize exactly what I was looking at. Fashion brand Bstroy debuted the brand’s spring/summer 2020 collection, designed by Brick Owens and Duey Catorze. The line featured distressed hoodies reading “Stoneman Douglas,” “Sandy Hook,” “Virginia Tech” and “Columbine,” the sites of four of the deadliest school shootings in the US. The school shooting-themed hoodies were shown at a show during New York Fashion Week.

Social media

Photos from the show were posted on their Instagram account, and quickly drew outrage from around the world. But what was gut wrenching for me were the comments from survivors or relatives of victims. I saw my daughter’s post as well as several of her classmates begging them to remove the sweatshirts and asking if they had no feelings for those affected by gun violence. One person commented, “My dead classmates dying should not be a f***ing fashion statement.”

On Twitter, a spokesperson for the Vicky Soto Memorial Fund, established after teacher Victoria Soto was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, posted, “This is just absolutely horrific. A company is making light of our pain and other’s pain for fashion. Selling sweatshirts with our name and bullet holes. Unbelievable.”

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Designers response

Owens posted a handout from the show on Instagram, which reads, “Sometimes life can be painfully ironic. Like the irony of dying violently in a place you considered to be a safe, controlled environment, like school. We are reminded all the time of life’s fragility, shortness, and unpredictability yet we are also reminded of its infinite potential.”

They didn’t seem to be fazed by the hurt that they were causing all that have been touched by school shootings and rather felt that their own personal struggles were holding them back from being understood for their “art”.

“We wanted to make a comment on gun violence and the type of gun violence that needs preventative attention and what its origins are, while also empowering the survivors of tragedy through storytelling in the clothes,” Owens wrote in an email to Today. “Also built into the device is the fact that our image as young, black males have not been traditionally awarded credit for introducing avant-garde ideas. So many people have assumed our message to be lazy just because of what they’ve been taught about black men. These hoodies were made with all of these intentions in mind, and to explore all of these societal issues. Not just the surface layer of gun violence in schools but also the different ways that we relate to each other and the dated ideas that still shape the assumptions we make about each other.”

Looking back – what should have been done

I don’t think the company or designers handled this situation well. They continue to have the images posted on their Instagram with over 4,000 comments under each picture. They defended their vision rather than understanding what their designs have done to those affected by school shootings. If they were trying to make a point to politicians to make a change, they missed their mark. The only ones affected by their vision were the ones having to relive the tragedies day after day. They are trying to profit from tragedy; if they wanted to make a political statement, there are many other ways to do this.

Important steps to take in a social media crisis

Act immediately – A social media crisis needs to be dealt with immediately. It’s important to accept responsibility as soon as possible. Brick Owens and Duey Catorze as well as Bstroy did not take responsibility but rather fed on the wounds they had opened.

Rethink your schedule – Reschedule all content that was supposed to go live once the crisis has occurred. The worst thing to do in the middle of a social media crisis is to try to promote a product or service. Bstroy used the anger to continue to promote their brand. Within hours, the images of their distasteful product were on national news along with the angered posts beneath their images.

Post an official statement on your website – Once a major crisis has occurred, an official statement needs to be made and posted on the website. Explain what happened in full detail and telling the company’s side of the story in an empathetic tone. With Bstroy, at no point have the designers or company posted an apology to the victims and their images continue to be posted on all social media accounts.

Avoid controversial topics – Never assume customers share the views on a particular topic as the company or creator. Discussing controversial topics is almost never a good idea. Avoid religion, politics, foreign policy and most social issues.


I created a social media management plan workflow that shows what steps Bstroy should have taken immediately after the crisis occurred.

A lot of brands don’t know how to handle a social media crisis properly. Addressing the crisis as soon as possible and to being honest with the audience is the most important thing to do. It’s a good idea for brands to prepare for a social media crisis by creating a crisis management plan and training a group of employees on how to handle a crisis. Understanding the necessary skills for successfully dealing with a social media crisis is key to handling one the right way.




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