Love may mean never having to say you're sorry, but business doesn't work that way. Sooner or later, every organization needs to apologize. Unfortunately, most are still using old school crisis communications techniques that don't fly in the era of the mobile news cycle. Consumers are too smart, too connected and too reactive to be pacified by outdated control and command strategies.

Whether you are a corporate giant or a small entrepreneurial company, taking your lumps is part of the healing process. Not doing so could trigger a downward spiral for your brand.

Our story, our spin

Businesses have a tendency to create the narrative they want rather than the one that will resonate with the public. This can be due to a botched attempt to control the narrative, an inexperienced spokesperson, or fear of engaging with consumers on social media. Though one-way communication might seem like a good short-term solution, long-term brand perception shows otherwise.

United Airline's tried to apologize twice, which came off staged and insincere. The first attempt, written in corporate double-speak, described manhandling a 69 year old passenger and dragging him off a plane as "trying to re-accommodate" him. The second apology was better worded and more direct but the timing and delivery were off.

Consumers before shareholders

One popular tactic, recently used by Samsung, Under Armour and Deutsche Bank, is the full page mea culpa ad, usually running in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. Such ads are often preceded or followed by weak video apologies. No doubt United Airlines and Pepsi are currently crafting their own full-page apology ads. This approach is really more of an attempt to address shareholders without media interference than an outreach to consumers.

The buck stops with you

When the U.S. Justice Department imposed a $7.2 billion settlement on Deustche Bank for selling toxic mortgage-backed securities, the bank's apology ad dodged responsibility for its board's poor decision-making. The ad, signed only by the new chief executive, avoided any accountability on the part of the bank. The CEO blamed the bank's misdeeds on the "misconduct of a few," expressed regret that "the conduct of the bank didn't follow our standards" and complained that "these legacy issues not only cost us money, but also our reputation and trust." In short, it wasn't an apology: it was a whine.

What's worse, Deutsche Bank positioned company misdeeds as human error, stating, "Wherever human beings work there will always be mistakes."

Deutsche Bank appeared more concerned with brand perception than with its role in the financial crisis.

Timing is everything

As their "passenger re-accommodating" scandal unfolded, United Airlines' timing bordered on comedic. The day after the crisis, they released an app update with a "drag and drop" feature, an irresistible set up for jokes and memes. Then, they announced that their PR person had received the PR Week's Communicator of the Year Award; an honor United would have been better off downplaying.

Moreover, the brand failed to directly respond to complaints via social media. Irate followers attacked the company on Facebook and Twitter while United kept silent. This is likely due to a combination of legacy crisis management techniques and an inexperienced, entry-level social media staff. Most likely they were following a response protocol dictated by the United Airlines legal and compliance teams.

Imagine if United Airlines had scaled up their social team, given their call center employees advance training in responding to PR issues, and resolved their crisis more swiftly and transparently. Perhaps United Airlines stock would not be negative $800 million as of this writing.

The long tail of a crisis

People want accountability, and they expect an organization to take its lumps in the media. Controversy sells and the organization will be held responsible no matter what, so why not take responsibility? Show some concern, contrition, and class. Maintain an open dialog: Consumers will talk regardless of whether you take part in the conversation. Those who are loyal to your brand will eventually forgive.

Most companies stop listening after a crisis, but this is a classic mistake. Once you are perceived as an organization that repeatedly defaults to, "We're sorry, now let's move on," people will start to lose confidence in your brand. Keep the conversation going.

If you are making changes and improvements to keep whatever happened from reoccurring, let people know. If you listen and are open to their complaints, you'll find that your customers are basically telling you how to solve your perception issues. Understanding what's not working and why is the first step in developing a strategy to stop bad practices.

In the end, how you are viewed in the eyes of your key stakeholders will control your perceived willingness to change to meet consumers where they are, and your profits.

Published on: Apr 17, 2017
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