MUMBAI, India — Global clothing brands involved in Bangladesh's troubled garment industry responded in starkly different ways to the building collapse that killed more than 600 people.
Some quickly acknowledged their links to the tragedy and promised compensation.
Others denied they authorized work at factories in the building even when their labels were found in the rubble.
The first approach seems to deserve plaudits for honesty and compassion.
The second seems calculated to minimize damage to a brand by maximizing distance from the disaster.
Communications professionals say both are public relations strategies and neither may be enough to protect companies from the stain of doing business in Bangladesh.
Such experts say that with several deadly disasters and fires in Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry in the past six months, possibly the only way retailers and clothing brands can protect their reputations is to visibly and genuinely work to overhaul safety in Bangladesh's garment factories.
"Just public relations is not going to do it," said Caroline Sapriel, managing director of CS&A, a firm that specializes in reputation management in crisis situations.
Over the past decade, major players in the fashion industry have flocked to Bangladesh, where a minimum wage of about $38 a month has helped boost profits in a global business worth $1 trillion a year. Clothing and textiles now make up 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports and employ several million people.
Yet the country's worker safety record has become so notorious that the reputational risks of doing business there may have become too great even for retailers and brands that didn't work with factories in the collapsed Rana Plaza building.
"I don't think it's enough anymore to say 'We're not involved in these particular factories,' " Sapriel said.
The building, which was not designed for industrial use and had three illegally added levels, collapsed April 24.
"Reputation is built over a long period of time. But to lose it, it can take seconds," Sharma said.
Sharma said that if he were advising any retailer doing business in Bangladesh, he would recommend swift action in the form of a concrete plan to overhaul the entire industry, working with government, factory owners and labor unions.
"They need to send out the message that they are addressing this problem — and then they need to actually do it," he said.
After Rana Plaza collapse, there have been tentative moves to do that. Last week, the Bangladeshi garment association met with representatives of 40 garment buyers including H&M, JC Penney, Gap, Nike, Li & Fung and Tesco.
Others have called for retailers and brands to now embrace a union-proposed plan for all retailers to fund factory upgrades and independent inspections that would cover the entire industry in Bangladesh.
That plan has previously been rejected by all but two major brands as too expensive for the corporations and Bangladesh's responsibility to fix its own problems. PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, and German retailer Tchibo were willing to sign up.
But with the latest disaster, a potential loss of reputation could be far more expensive in the long run.
"There is a perception when something terrible like this happens, that crisis communication is going to fix it," Sapriel said. "But no, no. You have to go and fix the problem. And then, only then, can you can communicate that you've done something to fix the problem."