PR Failure #33: Kyte Baby’s Parenting Blunder

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 was an important step forward in providing American parents with at least one option in welcoming a new child into the world. However, it inarguably fell short. And more than 20 years later, it still does. It is unpaid, and it is all we have at the national level. Today, only 56 percent of workers can take advantage of it. So what’s going on?  

More states are making provisions, and in particular private employers (like Fearey!) offer paid leave. The U.S. is the only high-income country in the world that doesn’t provide a single day off, and it is one of few countries without a paid parental leave program for new mothers. It falls further behind as many nations are now focusing on expanding existing leave to support both parents. Without fully making this a discussion on policy, it is exciting to us to see that U.S. lawmakers are proposing a bipartisan paid family leave plan. President Biden, in his State of the Union address last week, even touted it as a possible real program in 2025.

With all this said, we’re all about celebrating PR failures at Fearey. So what is the PR fail and the connection to paid leave? Let’s explore what clothing company Kyte Baby recently blundered so we can learn from it.

1. A Labor of Love... Lost

Prior to the company’s PR fail (more in a moment), Kyte enjoyed staunch support from its group of “Bamboo Moms.” Bamboo cloth for baby clothes has been rising in popularity in the last few years, and Kyte had a very vocal community voicing brand love. Several aspects of the company’s values were perceived to be in alignment with its audience, but really, its function as a company helping moms keep their babies comfortable (no matter the higher cost) is a no-brainer for “momfluencer” magic. Kyte’s Facebook group alone has more than 100,000 members looking to like and support and influence!

Kyte’s controversy kicked off in January and continued into February. The company’s maternity leave policy at the time provided two weeks to employees who’d worked for six months, which applied to then employee Marissa Hughes (at the center of the issue). The challenge began when Hughes adopted a baby, born prematurely. Needing to be near her new son in the NICU, which was nine hours from where Hughes and her husband live, Hughes made a request to work remotely (something her role could apparently accommodate). Add to this Kyte CEO Ying Liu had previously praised remote work for its empowerment of women: “…COVID has opened our eyes to the fact that we can do so much remotely, I think that it’s brought a lot more power and employability to women.”

While we don’t know what exactly was said in discussions between Kyte and Hughes, she was essentially told “no.” So, Hughes’ sister took to the socials on Hughes’ behalf.

@micropreemiejourney Kyte Baby fired Marissa (former employee) due to not being able to physically be at her employer’s warehouse. Marissa recently adopted a micro (22 weeks). The NICU is already strenuous enough. No parent should have to worry about losing their job. Please share. 🤍 #micropreemie #adoptionmatters #kytebaby #kytebabydrama #kyte #kytebabyclothing #micropreemiemom ♬ original sound – JD | Life After NICU 💙

Lessons Learned

Yes, the situation in the U.S. is fundamentally flawed. So much the better for a brand to get proactive and creative—be competitive in offering better benefits before a PR crisis forces the matter. And when it is a brand whose core audience is the very group of people who can benefit most from said benefit, it’s challenging to understand how this happened at all. Kyte was a company created to solve a health problem for babies that failed to support a family with a baby in the middle of a severe health problem.

It appears Kyte turned off comments for its Facebook group during the weeks surrounding the immediate issue. Enduring harsh criticism during a crisis is clearly uncomfortable, but as hard as it is to hear complaints, silencing your community is not the answer. How you publicly engage with customers matters as much as what they’re saying.

2. When a Brand Sours

The situation went viral and started racking up views. Kyte customers proposed a boycott and were seen throwing Kyte products out into the snow. A couple million views and a few days later, we see CEO Liu issue their first apology.

Taking to Kyte’s official TikTok channel, Liu begins with wanting to “sincerely apologize to Marissa for how her parental leave was communicated and handled in the midst of her incredible journey of adoption and starting a family.” Liu added that Kyte “prides itself on being a family-oriented company,” which treats “biological and nonbiological parents equally.”

Liu’s post received millions of views and thousands of comments within hours, bashing the company and its statement for the scripted sound and lack of sincerity.


♬ original sound – kytebaby

Lessons Learned

When a mistake is made, you must be swift AND always sincere. You must first address the matter quickly AND authentically. Apologize for any wrongdoings. While the Kyte backlash was already well underway, the initial response only compounded the problem. One commenter noted, “You have two work-from-home job openings on your company website right now. Was she offered either of those?”

Having a company policy is important, and consistently applying it matters, but compassion and culture are also critical. When words and tone don’t match up with what you say you stand for, it’s a problem. Liu’s eyes frequently darting to the bottom left as she clearly read a script didn’t help.

3. A Pregnant Pause

Hours later, a second apology was issued. This time, Liu went off script, addressed criticism directly, took greater responsibility, and seemed to recognize there were options to make this work that weren’t considered. Liu shared: “I just posted an official apology on TikTok, and the comments were right, it was scripted. I memorized it, I basically just read it, it wasn’t sincere, and I’ve decided to go off script and just tell you exactly what happened.” It was her decision to “veto” the remote-work request, and it was “a terrible decision. I was insensitive, selfish, and was only focused on the fact that her job had always been done onsite. I did not see the possibility of doing it remotely.” This one post received more than 6.3 million views and 16,000 comments, with reactions still not having it.

♬ original sound – kytebaby

Lessons Learned

This apology was better. Liu spoke directly to the camera. It felt more real or authentic. It tackled criticism head on. It offered Marissa a solution and spoke to fixing things at the company for the future. Unfortunately, the damage from the first post had been done. While it was important in this case to try again, and it was an improved effort, the lesson here is to do it right the first time. Easier said than done when you’ve already messed up, but I can’t emphasize it enough.

4. Fostering Good Relationships

Following the two TikTok apologies, Kyte released a media statement. TODAY.com reported Kyte said, “Marissa had been mistakenly denied remote work and declined the company’s offer to return to work.” However, Hughes also spoke with TODAY, sharing an alternative narrative. According to Hughes, Kyte’s managers seemingly agreed to allowing her to work from the NICU, during her son’s hospital stay, which was expected to last until March. Then managers called Hughes back and fired her.

A few days after two apologies and the first media statement, Kyte returned to TODAY on Jan. 22 to say the CEO “did not feel (Hughes’) job could be done remotely and if she could not return to the office after her maternity leave, then we would part ways.” The spokesperson added that Kyte told Marissa “…a job would be there when she was ready to return.”

Hughes responded differently to this as well, saying she was told she was fired, and Kyte might consider taking her back: “When you get home and you decide that you want to work again, we would consider taking you back. Why say you’ll consider it? I was never told I had a job.”

Lessons Learned

The timeline for multiple public communications, apologies, and clarifications, is muddy. The various statements are confusing. Liu’s apologies were already out there, so it didn’t help for a Kyte spokesperson to make statements to the media that don’t feel aligned. And it’s curious what Kyte’s goal was. Their statements here seemed to be what finally drew Hughes out to comment and clarify, as she hadn’t previously given any air to the argument, making for an even worse look for the company. Hughes also shared in her TODAY interview that she won’t be going back, as she doesn’t consider Kyte a “healthy work environment,” Kyte did even more damage to its reputation.

I’m a proud father of 3, and I’ve gone through the adoption process myself with a child who had unexpected medical issues himself. Becoming a parent can be a challenging journey for a variety of reasons. I, too, did not have much leave when my children were born into this world. So we went on a journey over the last decade and enacted some new policies to offer parents the gift of time and I am proud of that. I’m extremely proud of what we offer to our employees who become parents. I challenge you to not settle with the status quo. Be fearless in your pursuit of this journey.

I hope to see you online! Until the next blunder, I’d love to hear your comments.

Aaron Blank
President and CEO