A Sorry State: How We Apologize

As every PR professional knows, an artful public apology is a staple of reputation management – just ask Toyota, BP, or Goldman Sachs. A cottage industry has been created that’s dedicated to what I call “apology PR.”

But, apologizing is also a key piece of the social CRM toolkit, which communicators are rapidly learning and adopting. Nowadays, customers don’t just get mad, they get online. That’s why I was fascinated by the recent profile on the Southwest Airlines apology team. The group’s mission: to identify situations where passengers are inconvenienced, or worse, and to extend a prompt apology on behalf of the company.

When it comes to making amends, there are cultural challenges, as well as legal and business ones. Some experts contend that the typical American a response to a problem or accusation is to deny or challenge it, rather than to issue a mea culpa. The George Bush philosophy. That might be okay in a personal situation, but, in business, a poorly communicated apology is very damaging.

What’s great about the Southwest apology team isn’t the fact of its existence. But by naming the group, elevating it, and promoting its role Southwest conveys a great deal about its commitment to customer service – and its own brand reputation. It also offers some good lessons for the rest of us about how to say you’re sorry, whether publicly or otherwise.

Don’t delay. An apology that happens days or weeks after the offending incident is far less effective than one that comes within 48 hours. If it’s too late, it may only serve to remind the customer of something he’s already forgotten. In a public situation, it can easily seem the result of media or public pressure, which defeats the purpose.

Be accountable. Of course, there are always going to be circumstances beyond all control, and there are often legal reasons why a mea culpa isn’t advisable. But it helps to acknowledge what a service-oriented company is responsible for, which is doing all they can to ensure a good customer experience. The Southwest story highlights an incident where an obviously disturbed passenger chewed on her seat cushion, then disrobed and ran down the aisle of the plane. For the carrier to make amends for something so clearly out of left field wins extra customer loyalty points.

Explain, but stick to what’s relevant. A neutral explanation that does not offer excuses or point fingers, but serves to share information that the customer might not have had, can be very effective in deflecting anger.

Offer compensation. Here’s where the Southwest apology team has real clout. They offer travel vouchers to inconvenienced passengers. Not all companies can do that, but it sure can go a long way.

Be sincere. The standard “We’re sorry if anyone was offended” doesn’t sound authentic because, once again, it seeks to imply that the other guy’s at fault. A weaselly apology that points fingers or makes excuses is worse than none. Don’t go there.

Did HP Get Bad PR Advice?

A seat at the table. That’s how those of us in PR often put it when we talk about the role of public relations counsel in the corporate suite. Since the PR function is easily misunderstood, marginalized, or reduced to tactics, it’s a popular topic in professional circles. We want that seat, and we applaud signs that the chair is warm.

That’s why early reports that former HP CEO Mark Hurd’s ouster was the result of advice from a PR firm was so interesting. Insiders told media that a senior APCO executive urged the HP board to come clean about the allegations of sexual harassment against Hurd. The idea was to avoid the drip-drip-drip of salacious news leaks that might result from a strategy of silence. A one-day story that you can influence beats a drawn-out media orgy. And who wants to tangle with Gloria Allred, who seems to have morphed from feminist crusader to sexual ambulance chaser?

Good advice, right? Problem is, it backfired – or so it seemed. Hurd stepped down under pressure, but what was to have been a dignified exit was riddled with rumor, questions, and controversy. Not only did HP receive harsh criticism about its decision, but the tepid sex scandal, complete with 30-year-old nude photos of Jodie Fisher, played out in the media for over a week.

Worse, some HP-watchers blame Hurd’s resignation on bad counsel by APCO, charging that the firm placed political correctness over shareholder interests. After all, Fisher’s sexual harassment claim had been settled and an internal investigation found no violation of company policy. Business community reaction has ranged from public “head-scratching” to Larry Ellison’s blistering letter comparing the HP board to the “idiots” who fired Steve Jobs from Apple.

So was APCO – a highly reputable firm whose work I’m familiar with from my GCI days – overzealous in its counsel? Is the HP mess a sign that PR has somehow overstepped its bounds in the boardroom?

Hardly. First of all, media may have overstated things in saying the board followed PR advice in asking Hurd to step down. What’s more likely is that APCO advised the board to be transparent about the misconduct. The board’s ultimate decision vis a vis Hurd needs to be viewed in the context of HP’s turbulent recent history, the alleged expense account abuse, and what The Financial Times calls a “receding tolerance” for ethical failures in the executive suite.

This last has been understated in analysis of the HP decision. Reputations, both corporate and personal, are judged in light of business and cultural standards of conduct. Given the financial and ethical scandals of late, few boards can afford to look the other way when faced with questionable CEO behavior.With Hurd’s track record of delivering results, the board’s decision would have been controversial no matter how it was disclosed.

As PR specialists, it’s our role to understand and communicate the impact of public sentiment, particularly when mores are changing. But it’s up to the board to weigh the value of a CEO’s reputation, and its influence on the corporate brand. HP’s shares may be down, but I think reputation stock just went up.

The Steven Slater Effect: Has JetBlue Lost Its Cool?

Steven Slater’s slide to freedom took less than a day to establish him as a folk hero. The reasons are obvious. Who hasn’t wanted to make an, um, emergency exit from a miserable job with that kind of flourish?

It was just one employee who lost his cool, in a big way. But did his exit signal a downhill slide for JetBlue, once the coolest and most PR-savvy of carriers? Sure, he struck a blow for working people who are mad as hell. The drama drew a huge fan community on Facebook and a deluge of online anecdotes from people with similar tales. (My favorite was Gawker‘s invitation for readers to share their most outrageous “I quit” moments.) Can a reality show be far off?

But, Slater is also a symbol of the sad and sorry state of the airline industry. In contrast to US Airways’ “Sully” Sullenberger,  Slater is the anti-Sully, an icon for an industry buffeted by a perfect storm of recession, consolidation, and commoditization. Though on the other side of the counter, Slater’s drama is similar to that of Dave Carroll, who became an Internet meme when he recorded the music video, “United Breaks Guitars.” Each tapped into something nearly everyone has experienced.

But the villain here is the workplace. What sent Slater over the top, and down the chute, was reportedly job stress. The problem is, this isn’t supposed to happen on JetBlue, the airline that promises a different, and better, flying experience. Its planes, seats, onboard experience, and – most importantly – its culture, was what set it apart from the pack. When the airline was launched, it recruited flight attendants from other industries in order to underscore that promise (and, presumably, to avoid a union.)

JetBlue had to know that Slater could have injured or even killed ground crew workers with his stunt. His actions made some passengers wonder if the next rogue incident could happen when the plane was actually in the air. Not so funny. And, since his meltdown, there’s been considerable doubt cast on Slater’s version of events. He’s not Howard Beale. Instead, he’s a real guy with real problems.

To its credit, JetBlue handled the meltdown, and reputation threat, with style. First, it quietly offered a $100 gift certificate to each of the flight’s passengers, to compensate them for the “disruption.” Then, it acknowledged what the rest of the world was buzzing about..but briefly, and with a light touch. In a blog post titled “Some Times The Weird News Is About Us”, it poked gentle fun at all the attention the exit triggered, acknowledging that “it may feed your inner Office Space.” But most importantly, the company took advantage of the incident to offer public recognition to “2,300 fantastic, awesome and professional Inflight Crew members for delivering the JetBlue Experience you’ve come to expect of us.”  (No word on whether Slater was among those 2,300.)

Talk about emergency management. Although JetBlue may have lost some of its brand luster during the economic headwinds of the past few years, its response was true to its personality, and helped protect it from the PR fallout. As for the impact on the industry’s reputation, I agree with Sara Keagle. A flight attendant and blogger, Keagle suggests in a Wall Street Journal post that the Slater effect will be a kind of wake-up call for the traveling public. Don’t disobey the airline’s rules and policies. And, don’t tick off the guy whose finger is on the emergency chute.

For Mrs. Obama, This Vacation Isn’t Free

There’s that word again. Optics. The First Lady and daughter Sasha departed last week on a whirlwind trip to Spain, where they stayed at a posh Ritz Carlton-owned hotel with friends. The press made it out like a Sex And The City-style girls’ weekend of lavish shopping and touring, finished off by lunch with the Spanish royal family. Strolling through the Mediterranean markets in a stunning one-shoulder Jean-Paul Gaultier top, Mrs. Obama was tracked by a multilingual pack of paparazzi. But on Friday, government unemployment figures revealed that 131.000  more  U.S. jobs have been lost. Bad optics.

Since her return, Mrs. Obama’s trip has been criticized by the blogosphere and press. The knocks on the vacation are pretty diverse. They include “Michelle Antoinette” behavior during a downturn; emasculating the POTUS by missing his birthday; and even racial insensitivity for choosing to tour a country where our own State Department warns that “Afro-Americans” are subject to “racist prejudices.”

Whoa. Slow news week? Well, it’s August, after all. The White House didn’t respond directly to the backlash, except to try to correct inaccuracies and exaggerations, like the report that 40 friends had tagged along at the taxpayers’ expense (it was more like three.) But, both David Axelrod and Democratic party chairman Tim Kain sought to defend the junket as an educational trip for young Sasha. That was a bit lame. Axelrod’s response, in which he points out that people in the public eye are “human beings,” was fuzzy. (Meaning that human beings need relaxation? That we all make mistakes, because we’re only human, or that, being human, we want our daughters to experience Marbella?) Better to stay silent, leak the real details of the trip’s costs, and suck it up.

As some columnists have pointed out, part of the problem is our national schizophrenia around the role of First Lady. Should she be a silent and smiling helpmeet for the President?  Anodyne goodwill ambassador and occasional presidential surrogate? Post-feminist role model and global fashion icon?

We want it all, of course. And the President’s wife is probably all of the above, and more, depending on the woman herself , the circumstances, and the relationship between the two. The White House’s mistake this time was in not matching the role to the need. A PR-savvy team like theirs should have known how the trip would play to the public.

And maybe they did. The days of summer days are winding down, and this, too, will be a distant memory come September, or sooner. It seems the First Family’s next scheduled vacation is closer to home. At the end of the month, they’ll spend a week on the Gulf Coast, probably with plenty of photographers on hand. And maybe without the Gaultier. After all, it’s good optics.


Have We Been Fair To Tony Hayward?

There’s an expression related to PR that I particularly dislike. It’s “optics,” and like most buzzwords, it’s a bit pretentious and unnecessary. But when I heard that Tony Hayward will be replaced as CEO of BP, it popped into my head. Good optics, that is. Hayward’s been sent to Siberia (he’ll join a BP joint venture in Russia) while a new guy – a more marketable one, by all appearances – takes the helm.

Not only is Dudley BP’s first American CEO, he was born in Mississippi and spent part of his childhood in the Gulf region. Though he’s lacking a Gulf coast accent (too bad, that), he’s being cast as the anti-Hayward. And not being British does help. A cartoon depicted Hayward being tutored by a PR firm to lose his British accent to better connect with Americans. That ruddy-cheeked English appearance and crisp, yet gaffe-prone speech helped make him the poster child for corporate incompetence and indifference.

But “optics” implies a certain shallowness. It’s about image. Just the PR. Is there a more objective way to look at Hayward?  He claims he’s been “demonized and vilified” by the U.S. media, painting his departure as a necessary sacrifice for the long-term good of the company. He told The Wall Street Journal that he was villainized “for doing the right thing” although what he did right is still a question.

There’s an ocean-sized gap between his image here and in the U.K. People buy him drinks and express sympathy for the way he’s been treated by the whole mess. Moved to tears by a standing ovation during a recent visit to the home office, Hayward seemed a symbol of a departing warrior than a bumbling chief.

So, is the perception gap about geography, or misplaced nationalism? Not really. Hayward was respected internally as a competent executive and the right man to clean up BP’s spotty safety record after John Browne’s tenure. And there was a striking absence of UK investors calling for his ouster. Analysts and stakeholders who studied his performance and questioned him directly over his time as CEO were largely silent. Clearly, he was doing something right before disaster struck.

So, has Hayward been a scapegoat? Of course, but as CEO, he’s has been the top mouthpiece, and symbol, of corporate behavior, or, in this case, misbehavior. When the storm hit, his ability to articulate the way forward was absent. It wasn’t executive performance, the accent, or the pedigree that doomed him. It was a fatal lack of communication skills.

In leaving him in place to absorb the public rancor through the worst of the crisis, like a sponge soaking up toxic mess before a fresh one arrives, BP actually may have limited its downside, both financially and in a PR sense. But, as a (British) fund manager says about Dudley, “he’s not a new broom.”  His timing is pretty good, and his narrative is appropriate, but the problem with BP’s incoming CEO is that he’s really an insider who represents more of the same.

The whole changing of the guard is just that – a rearrangement. BP hasn’t gone nearly far enough to send a message of change. It’s varied the face and the accent behind the PR mess, but that’s about it. Bad PR can bring down a CEO, but its opposite – nice optics – can’t ensure success.  So, until real ecological and workplace reform takes place, it’s a prettier picture, but business as usual.