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Retractions And Reversals: Best And Worst of Apology PR

This week has brought a fresh wave of public mea culpas and backpedalings – plenty of fodder for self-anointed apology PR experts.

Most proactive is the ad campaign mounted by JC Penney after the failure of its everyday low price strategy and store makeovers of last year. The spot, which is narrated in a warm, intimate female voiceover, addresses shoppers directly, admitting in heartfelt tones that the company didn’t listen to its customers and pledging to restore the “old” Penney.  It also made savvy use of social media, spreading the message with #JCPlistens hashtag and rewarding customers who say they will come return to the brand. Will the campaign pay off? It’s too early to tell, but I think the call-to-action (“We heard you. Now we’d like to see you.”) is a winner.

Less effective, at least in the moment, was the statement from PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew brand when a desperately-trying-to-be-edgy video ad sent its viewers over the edge.  After the outpouring of criticism for the video’s perceived racist and misogynist content, the brand pulled it with the statement, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended.” No responsibility, no sincerity. The initial apology was, well, flat, and the entire episode tasteless.

To be fair, the explanation offered by the rap artist who produced the video, Tyler, the Creator (that’s with a capital “C”) gave important context for the ad, but his response, which was posted by his manager, was drowned out in the backlash. Mountain Dew seemed to realized that its own statement was just a drop in the apology bucket and that it needed to step up. It followed with a promoted tweet. “Hey, guys, we made a big mistake and have removed the offensive video,” even adding the hashtag #fail.

Both could take a tip from the most successful brand walkback to date. In February, after iconic bourbon Maker’s Mark announced it would manage scarce supply by reducing the alcohol content of its famous whiskey, fans and brand-watchers revolted. Pundits called it brand suicide. Maker’s Mark initially defended its decision, but it quickly reversed course. The result seems to have made drinkers appreciate their favorite whiskey even more. After a brief hoarding binge, Maker’s Mark loyalists have forgiven the label, and they’re back by the barrelful.

Some have speculated that the whole thing was a PR ploy. Whatever the case, Maker’s Mark recent earnings were anything but watered down. The brand reported its best quarter ever, just in time for the bourbon-soaked Kentucky Derby weekend.

Sometimes you just have to show that you’re listening. There’s the proof.

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