OPINION: #SorryNotSorry. How Bic got it so wrong

To mark this year's Women's Day, there was a lot of ranting and rage targeted at PR types and poor marketing that leveraged on the stereotypes of the day. The pink drinks, the cerise cupcakes, the frivolous superficiality and saccharinity of it all was drawn into sharp focus. More so than it has been in previous years, largely because of the influence and reach of social media.

It was within this context that any brand that stepped out of line on Twitter or Facebook would be roundly slammed, and rightly so. It was bound to happen. The prize for the epic Women's Day marketing fail of the year undoubtedly goes to Bic pens for getting it oh so very wrong.

The company ignorantly posted this advert on its Facebook page:

We really don't need to get into the minutiae of this, except to say it is all kinds of horrible, blatantly sexist and wrong. By posting the advert, the brand committed the first sin of social media.

  • Do not post anything that could be viewed as vaguely racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, derogatory, offensive or any way make any customer feel marginalised.

The advert never should have reached the point of publication. There should have been thorough vetting done before it hit the public domain. Some person with a vague level of EQ and morality should have immediately raised the alarm, setting off flashing red lights and sirens blaring.

It was inevitable that the Twitterati, myself included, would come down on the brand with a vengeance, outraged at the sexist nature of the post. Of course, the grumbling was laced with humour and sarcasm and complemented by hilarious memes. We South Africans never miss an opportunity to laugh.

In the face of that kind of backlash, a brand's first reaction should be to follow the basic rules of crisis management 101.

  • Straight out say sorry. Apologise with authenticity and acknowledge what you have done wrong.

They would also have done well to grasp the opportunity to turn a bad PR fail into a positive one, perhaps by offering to make a generous donation to a charity that benefits women. Had Bic done that, the brand may have been lauded but more importantly it would have calmed the pack. Clever PR people could have even used the opportunity for the brand to laugh at itself, posting a picture of the legendary Bic clown balancing on pencils in the circus ring with a strap line reading, 'We were clowns. Sorry'.

Instead, what Bic chose to do was to offer a hollow apology, shift the blame and then inadvertently admit to plagiarising from a badly written, random blog that only served to further entrench the perception of misogyny on the part of the brand:

We would like to apologize to all our fans who took offense to our recent Women's Day Post. We can assure you that we meant it in the most empowering way possible and in no way derogatory towards women. We took the quote from a "Women in Business" blog site.

The sort of apology included a link to said site, bizarrely titled 'Spicy Broccoli' that laughably could not even spell 'women' correctly. The post was replete with nuggets of advice, explaining how women should use their man smarts in the boardroom without losing the deft touches and sensitivity of their femininity.

The quote in the advert itself came from a popular book written by American actor and TV host Steve Harvey, which was also turned into a movie. The company said its intention was to try and motivate and encourage women to continue to strive for success. Ahem.

Bic's #SorryNotSorry reaction had all the hallmarks of a frantic mad scramble by a PR underling who knew they had to quell the unrest, say sorry, but be sure to not take the blame, out of fear of being culled. Do just enough to calm the masses but make sure you keep your job.

In reality, all it did was stoke the fires. It made us more irritated that the brand was not taking the offensive nature of its post seriously. It moved the incident from an isolated Women's Day fail to a debate around Bic's general standpoint on gender and highlighted its past transgressions which would have lay buried to many had they quickly apologised.

It didn't take me long to scroll through the brand's Twitter feed to find that the company had ignorantly posted a quote from rape accused comic Bill Cosby just two months ago, when the allegations against him were already full blown and in the media's gaze.

"In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure." Bill Cosby

It just couldn't get worse.

Just a couple posts down from the offensive Women's Day advert on Facebook and the non-apology was a very pink advert for the 'Miss Bic' range - special 'lady pens' designed for lady hands. When this particular range was launched in the US a couple of years ago, it was mocked and ridiculed by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres for being blatantly sexist and backward. Despite this backlash, Bic chose to launch it here in South Africa regardless. And then even left the offensive advert on its Facebook feed just below the Women's Day apology!

Finally, hours later, when nearly all credibility had been lost, someone, somewhere, at Bic headquarters, finally 'clicked' and reigned in the whole entire mess by pulling the empty blame-shifting apology and issuing a proper one:

Hi everyone. Let's start out by saying we're incredibly sorry for offending everybody - that was never our intention, but we completely understand where we've gone wrong. This post should never have gone out. The feedback you have given us will help us ensure that something like this will never happen again, and we appreciate that.

What Bic should also have done in this make-up apology is follow another central rule of crisis management.

  • Truly show us how sorry you are and genuinely illustrate that you have learnt your lesson.

Again, the brand could have shown some benevolence and undertaken to support a charity or thrown its weight behind an initiative that empowers women. Many on Facebook and Twitter suggested the company make a donation to Rape Crisis. There are many young women in South Africa who could benefit from Bic products to advance their education.

BicGate is a lesson in crisis management and how not to deal with a social media fail. More importantly, it is a master class in how not to get your brand into a crisis in the first place.

Perhaps the brand should cast its eye over at its competitor Staedtler's Twitter feed to see how to embrace social media cleverly without enraging half of the population.

Bic please, that's not how we roll in 2015. #WomensDay

  • Staedtler SA (@Staedtlersa) August 11, 2015_Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for _ Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener