Call it the art of the apology.

It's incredibly difficult to sound sincere, explain your actions, and win back the populace. There may be times when it will be better for everyone involved to just say two words ("I'm sorry") and move on, letting the words become your only entry into the public discourse.

And then there's Pepsi, United Airlines and Burger King.

With Pepsi, an ad that showed a complete ambivalence to entire groups of people--you just need to hand someone a can of pop to smooth over any rough edges--landed with a thud, like the sound of a million crates of aluminum. Yet, the apology was even worse, mostly directed (it seems) at the superstar who agreed to be in the ad.

United Airlines broke new ground (or maybe that should be opened new airways) for a failure to reconnect with customers, especially those on social media. When a passenger is dragged from an airplane, there is absolutely nothing you can say or do to explain the situation. The truth is in the video for millions of people, no matter how much back-story you add.

While you can order a Pepsi on a United Airlines flight, if you want the triple dose of marketing blunders, try to sneak a Whopper on board.

News spilled out today that a marketing rep for the fast food chain edited an entry for the Whopper on Wikipedia so it reads more like an ad. Then, the company created a commercial where an employee triggers the Google Home speaker by saying "OK, Google" and asks about the Whopper burger. Even though Wikipedia forbids advertising, the new entry talks about all of the wonderful ingredients.

Users responded by editing the Wikipedia entry to say the Whopper causes cancer. This particular battle is still raging. At last check, even though Google says they blocked the ad, it still worked for me and still triggers the Wikipedia message.

So far, Burger King has played dumb about the incident, but you can expect an apology soon enough. Customers will start demanding it. So will the  techies. For starters, commandeering the Google Home speaker is not a smart tactic considering Google didn't allow the marketing stunt and will likely figure out how to block it. (Update: They did.)

The connection here is that there is a way to issue an apology and a way to make things worse. All three of these companies have egg on their face. They need to admit they screwed up, but the way they proceeded to make amends didn't really make sense.

If you're in a similar situation--in life, at work, or as part of a company marketing campaign--the best strategy is to own up to the mistake, apologize, and then get to work on how to make sure it never happens again. There's also the art of atonement. Brands don't always do this correctly. With United Airlines, there are now rumors that police will not be allowed to forcibly remove passengers. That's not enough. The airlines need to get better at determining when to allow boarding. There should never be a situation (unless it is health-related or some other violation of policy) when a passenger is removed like that.

And it has to be honest and upfront. The one thing that ties all of these cases together (and you might throw in a comment this week by press secretary Sean Spicer about Hitler not using chemical weapons) is that there didn't appear to show remorse. The companies were "caught" and then made feeble attempts to gain back consumer respect, but it all looked too choreographed (or downright half-hearted).

The underlying issue is this: We live in a culture where authenticity rules. Everyone is in the spotlight. We're all on social media. Making a bold declaration about what went wrong and the mistakes you've made can work wonders, especially if you follow up the apology with decisive action. For these three giants of industry...we're still waiting for that.

Published on: Apr 13, 2017