13.11.2020 | Insight

How FIGS scrubs handled their comms crisis

By Jamie Doggett

The FIGS website opens with the rhetorical question “why wear scrubs when you can #wearfigs”? It is this hashtag that saw FIGS go from a medical clothing brand to a beloved friend of healthcare professionals (HCPs).

In June this year, I wrote an article about the rise to success of FIGS, a ‘premium scrubs, medical uniforms and apparel’ company. In that article I analysed the huge level of online advocacy HCPs were showing, not just FIGS’ ‘ambassadors’ but from HCPs across the globe.

FIGS video causes backlash

Back in 2011, Daniel Ghinn, CREATION.co’s founder, wrote about the potentially devastating effect that a social media crisis can have on brands, showing that social media can make or break healthcare companies’ reputations. In the almost ten years since this was written, we have seen surges of approval from HCPs online for companies’ activities as well as some serious communications crises.

After publishing a short advertising video on their website, FIGS experienced one of these social media crises in the form of a swift backlash to what audiences felt was a serious faux pas.

We have been tracking the mostly positive conversations of HCPs through 2020 and last month we saw negativity bias take its effect. More mentions of FIGS were seen on Twitter during the week commencing 11th October than the previous 30 weeks combined.

The marketing video posted showed a woman wearing pink FIGS scrubs with a ‘DO’ name tag, meaning Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, holding a copy of Medical Terminology for Dummies upside down. Medical workers from all professions were unhappy with both the portrayal of female medical professionals as well as the discipline of osteopathic medicine.

Women in Medicine

The push for equality in medicine has been a hot topic among physicians on social media this year as explored by Mary Kangley in her article Women Supporting Women: Women In Medicine Month a Social Media Success. On the momentum of this drive it is no surprise the most used hashtag in response to this video was #WomenInMedicine.

In the outcry to the video that HCPs called “sexist” and “misogynistic”, emotions ran high as a female family medicine physician in Iowa said she was tweeting for the first time in a year to vent her ‘outrage’ at the ‘horribly offensive’ and insulting’ video. A female doctor in Missouri called it ‘appalling’ especially as the company is female, they ‘should have known better’.

Offensive to Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine

Physicians and healthcare workers from all specialities also were unhappy with the portrayal of osteopathic physicians; one Oklahoma based doctor involved in examinations for  osteopathic students called the post ‘wildly offensive’ as it implied ‘osteopathic physicians have no place in our society.’ While another physician suggested it was a ‘deliberate and disgusting opinion piece on osteopathic medicine’.

A call to boycott on social media

A boycott was one call-to-action from HCPs as an appropriate response. Many didn’t stop with using hashtags such as #boycottfigs, #dontwearfigs and #dropfigs but stated in their posts what they planned to do including unsubscribing from FIGS, choosing to no longer wear FIGS’ scrubs and in some instances HCPs said they were returning their scrubs.

Female physicians respond with #RightSideUp

Another reply from female physicians, aimed at the Medical Terminology for Dummies book being held upside down, was posting photos of themselves holding medical books and journals which they had authored. Some used the hashtag #RightSideUp to share these.

FIGS respond with a “non-apology”

A public apology on social media from FIGS was quickly forthcoming, however it initially seemed to worsen the mood as it addressed the audience as “guys”. Kate Lichtenberg, a family physician in Missouri, was ‘disappointed by [the] ad and disappointed by the attempt at an apology.’

A physician in Georgia, Gayatri Joshi felt the ‘non-apology implies that the viewer is at fault for being oversensitive’ and that ‘“you guys” is a microaggression’. The original apology was taken down by FIGS and an edited version, notably without the use of ‘guys’, replaced it. This was still not received well by some but others did respond more positively, one nurse saying it was ‘much better’.

Could it have been avoided?

There is much that can be understood in retrospect. Having observed a very positive public social media opinion of FIGS, could this sentiment pendulum have been avoided? How did we go from HCPs singing the praises of FIGS to “You care about your image more than your customers and healthcare professionals.”?

Some HCPs indicated they had always been dubious of FIGS as they ‘dropped the ball two years ago down a very slippery slope’ or had questionable ethics ‘based on the way they take advantage of young docs’.

Mainstream news media picked up the story with write ups seen on such outlets as CNN and the Independent but the primary loss of face occurred on social media.

In his article on Managing a Social Media Crisis, Ghinn wrote “If you can spot the potential ‘forest fire’ when it is just a spark, you can much more easily deal with it, as long as you have good procedures in place”. There were hints in the public HCP conversation during the reverberations as they told stories of messaging FIGS to ask about racial imbalance in advertising and photoshopping pictures of young professionals to remove moles or make them slimmer.

How will it play out?

The well worn statement “no press is bad press” comes to mind. This turn of events has been bad press for FIGS but could it prove to be a succès de scandale? One academic hospitalist suggested it will ‘blow over in 3-10 days. Totally forgotten in 2 months.’ Will the sentiment return to its previous apotheosis leaving a greater level of brand awareness in its wake? Or will it be the start of a permanent decline for FIGS? We will be tracking to find out if it does indeed ‘blow over’ or if there will be a more lasting impact on FIGS.

Managing a social media crisis

In the age when social media can be used for so much good, companies must be prepared for what may appear on their social horizon. It is a good idea to have a plan in place to monitor your social media and customer messaging every day so no seed of discontent is missed.

Respond to customer questions or suggestions in a timely manner making sure they know their voices are being heard, and take these seriously. At CREATION.co in our Senior Leadership Team meetings we will ask the question every week for open discussion ‘what are we hearing from the environment around us?’

FIGS did well in explaining how their systems may have failed them leading up to this video and what they were doing to change this. This demonstrates two key points:

  1. First, make sure your digital governance (your systems for social engagement) are well thought out not only tactically but strategically.
  2. Secondly, own your mistakes which FIGS have done through an apology, financial donations, committing to having HCP consultants on marketing as well as training for all employees.

We all hope we will never face a social media crisis but it is important to have a process in place with procedures of how to fight a fire should it occur.

Keep engaging

When we see stories where companies are being lambasted on social media it might be easy to think that it would be easier to avoid it altogether. But if you plan well, keep your content fresh and keep having fun with it there is no reason for you not continuing to obtain all the benefits of an excellent social media strategy.

The header image was sourced from a Twitter post by user F O B I E.

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Meet the Author

Jamie Doggett

As Associate Director of Insight, Jamie leads the Analytics and Insights Team overseeing the development of insights. He works with teams to ensure the highest standards of research outputs, client delivery, and technology development.

Jamie is a country boy at heart having grown up on the sunny Isle of Wight and enjoys adventures which is reflected in a love for travel and travel literature.