The Primark Empire Strikes Back

The ‘fast fashion’ chain Primark has made effective use of YouTube to attack the BBC’s flagship Panorama programme, after the BBC Trust upheld part of the company’s complaint about a 2008 edition, accusing Primark of using child labour in India. This ‘all guns blazing’ approach has won it some headlines, but there is a question mark over the long-term payback from this strategy. The disputed allegations centre on less than a minute’s broadcast footage of young boys apparently working on three Primark garments. The company says the footage was faked, the BBC Trust says no-one can be sure but they’re probably right. In a well-produced six-minute video, Primark personalises its attack on the investigative reporter concerned, and takes apart his methods – we’ve only got Primark’s word for its accusations of course, although the footage looks convincing enough.

This is another landmark case in corporate use of social as well as mass media in a crisis. We will see more of this sort of thing. Going on the offensive like this will certainly be a cathartic act for the company, to boost morale of its staff and suppliers, but will it serve Primark’s purposes in the long term? The company did not deal with any of the other unpleasant accusations in the Panorama programme, the veracity of which were not disputed by the BBC Trust. Primark has certainly got its side of the story over, but may just be extending the coverage – potentially imprinting the association of the company’s name with apparently exploitative practices. To be really effective in convincing consumers it is on the side of the angels, Primark should have spent much more time in the video explaining its strong code of conduct, demonstrating how it is rigorously enforced, complete with footage of happy workers in airy factories. Something to make people feel good at shopping at Primark stores. After all, surely the company would prefer to be seen as cheap and cheerful, rather than cheap and nasty?

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