The PR Perils Of Cultural Appropriation

PR teams have been pressed into crisis duty in a series of corporate missteps that have something in common: marketing or advertising that shows “cultural appropriation” – borrowing a sensitive ethnic or cultural theme for commercial purposes. It’s easy to see why a marketing campaign would be tempted by the currency and news value of a hot-button social or cultural issue, but it can be a perilous move. There are lessons in three recent cases of corporate cultural appropriation – and the PR responses.

Jack in the Box’s #MeToo Misstep

Last month, Jack in the Box was embroiled in a mini-controversy about its TV ad campaign for new teriyaki bowls in which men and women in an office talk about how much they like each other’s “bowls” – punning on the word “balls,” obviously. If you doubted that the spot attempts to parody the current sensitivity about sexual harassment in the workplace, there’s even a company lawyer who butts in and warns that they can’t say “bowls” in that context. Media critics led by Adweek as well as the Twitter-verse accused the fast food chain of insensitivity. The corporate response, in the form of a statement to Adweek, defended the spot without contrition.

“This ad is a creative and humorous expression around the teriyaki bowl, highlighting how a burger brand such as Jack in the Box has the guts — or ‘bowls’ — to go beyond the usual and serve something other than burgers. This ad is not diminishing any movement, and we stand firmly against any form of harassment and value those who have the guts to combat it.”

PR In proportion

The statement was the one and only corporate response to the criticism. Given that the the story lasted only a day in major media outlets, Jack in the Box’s corporate response seems both proportionate and sufficient. To its credit, the company did not issue an empty “fauxpology.” Instead, it defended its choice while affirming its values. The absence of response would have been a PR mistake, yet an overreaction could have overshadowed the campaign or even ended it.
The interesting question here is about the company’s motives. Could it have intentionally courted controversy by making light of workplace harassment issues? We don’t know, but if so, it was probably a risk that succeeded.

Bodega’s botched branding

In 2017 a pair of ex-Google employees founded a new company to sell goods usually found at convenience or corner stores – in vending-machine-like “pantry boxes” placed in other businesses and residential buildings around town. The pair came under fire when they named their company Bodega and used a cat (like those who live in bodegas) in its branding. A year later, the startup has rebranded as Stockwell. In this case, it was the earned media coverage around the launch that seemed to precipitate the backlash. Fast Company’s feature on the founders went viral – with the headline Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete. More media outlets piled on, and the founders found themselves on the defensive.

Startups should listen to PR advice, too

A less provocative headline might not have elicited so much blowback, but Bodega’s problem went beyond the brand. When asked about cultural insensitivity, cofounder McDonald explained that they had researched the name among Hispanics, with positive results, but he added, “I’m not particularly concerned about it.Better PR advice might have led to a more sensitive answer. Yet in this case, the issue wasn’t just the company name, but its founders’ attitudes and their overall business goals. At the very time when Silicon Valley’s reputation has started to fray, it really did seem to want to put the bodega out of business, while borrowing its own cultural status in the bargain.

You never forget your first apology

After their missteps, the Bodega founders did many things right. Instead of granting a follow up interview to apologize further or commit to changing the name (a decision that couldn’t be made quickly), they posted an apology that acknowledged the problem and admitted their market research fell short. In announcing the company’s rebranding as Stockwell nearly a year later, they take responsibility for making a bad decision and move on to share a new and gentler vision for the company.

Though Fast Company notably did not soften its language in covering the rebrand, it seems that Stockwell is on a better path today than before, at least in a communications sense.

PR remedies for corporate insensitivity

Target misfires in New York

The biggest brand to commit a cultural gaffe was Target. In July, it opened a store in Manhattan’s East Village, a neighborhood known for a gritty, diverse, and artistic sensibility. Target launched its store with a temporary display that depicted the storefront facade of iconic East Village rock club CBGBs. The backlash came in a New York minute. Rather than an homage, the CBGB facade was seen as a tone-deaf display at a time when residents are concerned about ongoing gentrification and corporatization of the area. Author Jeremiah Moss called it “the most deplorable commodification of local neighborhood culture I’ve ever witnessed.” As with the Bodega branding, the reference was perceived as ignorance of, or indifference to, the tastes of major stakeholders – namely, residents.

Two days after the store opening, Target issued a brief statement apologizing “if some eventgoers felt it was not the best way to capture the spirit of the neighborhood” and pledging to take “guest feedback” into account in the future. Given its size and resources, Target’s insensitivity to its new store’s community is surprising, and its response was tepid. When trying to tie their brand or product to an archetype, issue, or idea, businesses can’t afford to disregard cultural and social values of the communities they serve.

How Not To Apologize

Terrible explanations for terrible behavior are perversely fascinating — especially to PRs and professional communicators. They’re also instructive. It takes a well-crafted and sincere apology to explain away repugnant speech or actions, and even the best mea culpas can fall short. But lately there have been some doozies.

In an episode unlikely to be matched anytime in the near future, former Georgia state representative Jason Spencer was videotaped dropping his pants and screaming racial epithets while running backwards for the Sacha Baron Cohen show “Who is America?”.  Baron Cohen, of course, is a notorious prankster who specializes in making people look ridiculous. And in this show he’s unrecognizable posing as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert (props to the makeup crew.) But Spencer’s initial response to the video’s release was that he did it because he was afraid for his life. That’s right, he claimed that his “fears (of terrorists) were so heightened” that he was unable to think clearly or understand what he was doing. (He sure doesn’t look scared in his bare-assed scamper; he looks ridiculous.)

Jason Spencer’s pranking is so bizarre that no apology would have sufficed, so his resignation was inevitable. But the “terrorists made me do it” defense adds an extra dimension of humiliation to his exit. He would have been better off with an explanation that took responsibility for his little escapade. Something like, “The people behind the show set out to make me look like a racist fool, and I stupidly complied. Fortunately the only person I truly harmed was myself.”

In a slightly less outrageous instance, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter is embroiled in a public fight with company officers after he, too, apparently used the n-word during a media training session with a marketing agency. Schnatter stepped away from the company and apologized, yet even as he did so, he insisted that the agency team had coerced him to utter the word. (He later claimed the agency CEO blackmailed him over the comment, and the situation has devolved further since the initial apology.)

It seems improbable that an agency coaching an executive on better interview techniques would urge him to blurt out a racist slur. But even if true, why would Schnatter comply? After all, he’s a brash entrepreneur who’s never been afraid to go his own way. He’s the client. The boss. It’s not reasonable to blame his behavior on someone else, and it undermines the initial apology and whatever is left of his public reputation. His explanation prolonged the story and did him no credit.

We see this kind of whataboutism and finger-pointing in CEOs, politicians (including the president, of course), and entertainers. But here’s the bottom line: the worse the offense, the better and more sincere the apology must be. Blaming others, even when justified, just isn’t a good look. Taking responsibility is step one in an effective public apology. It shouldn’t be that hard.

As a contrast, look at Khloe Kardashian’s tweeted apology after she called sister Kourtney a “retard” on an Instagram livestream. Her offense may not rise to the level of others here, and her tweet isn’t very articulate or dignified. But in her swift and simple response, Kardashian agrees, owns the mistake, and pledges to be better. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Pepsi’s Smart Response To Its PR Controversy

Brand Pepsi fell flat this week with its bafflingly tone-deaf ad featuring Kendall Jenner, but in the wake of a public relations backlash, the brand did at least one thing right. After Twitter lit up with nasty tweets and late-night comics poured on scorn, Pepsi reacted quickly. Its response was so simple, sensible, and honest that it makes you wonder why more companies can’t seem to do the same.

It admitted the that the spot fizzled, apologized, and promptly pulled it. What might have been a lengthier drip, drip of social media mockery ended with the ad. Sure, there are the PR post-mortems and the ad agency schadenfreude disguised as “learnings” (the ad was created in-house), but for Pepsi’s brand reputation, the worst is over.

What was the brand thinking in creating the spot? That’s harder to figure, but we have to take them at their word, which was that they were going for a “global message of unity, peace and understanding” in an environment that is by any account difficult and divisive. That part they got right. And in some ways, the brand did accomplish that mission. As Stephen Colbert put it, “We have a deeply divided nation. But today it seems like everyone has come together to join the protest against the new protest ad from Pepsi.”

Not that Pepsi’s off the hook entirely. The commercial’s utter genericism and soft-focus take on social justice made it look deeply inauthentic. Because the “protest” featured was so bland (the signs read, “Join the Conversation”) and the impeccably styled crowd looked fresh from a fashion casting call, it lacked the edginess that might have made it controversial, but valuable. Instead, it seemed to trivialize real political and social activism. To add insult to injury, the final frame, in which Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a (subtly hot)  young police officer, seemed to parallel the very real incident captured in an iconic photo of a Black Lives Matter protest. The image, taken by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, depicts protester Ieshia Evans, standing tall and dignified in a flowing, feminine skirt as she was arrested by police in full riot gear. Any comparison between the two photos, to say the least, was not flattering to Pepsi.
Anatomy of An Iconic Image: How this photograph of a protester in Baton Rouge could come to symbolize a movement
But the brand’s fast reaction was a timely reminder of the value of a sincere public apology. Companies shouldn’t need to be reminded, but the authentic mea culpa is rare lately. Pepsi’s statement struck the right notes.

It acted quickly

Given the ad’s obvious cost, it must have been tempting to delay action in the hope that the furor might subside. Killing your darlings is hard. But an hour is like a week in today’s news cycle. A slower decision would only have prolonged the pain, and Pepsi was smart to recognize that fact.

It accepted responsibility

At no point did the brand challenge those who criticized, suggest they might be overreacting, or point fingers at anyone but their own team. The statement even included an apology to Kendall Jenner, which was unnecessary, but a classy touch.

It admitted the mistake

Pepsi listened to its customers, as well as its loudest critics, and didn’t try to salvage the ad or fight for it. It agreed that it “missed the mark.” Other than the explanation about global unity, it simply confessed the error and pledged to do better. In most cases, that’s all people need to hear in order to cut you some slack.

It “fixed” the situation

One rule of good reputation management is to fix or solve a potentially damaging problem, or pledge to do so as quickly as possible. Often this is the toughest part, because under some circumstances it could involve a product recall, reformulation, or termination of a key executive. In this case the fix was expensive, but highly doable. No more ad.
The ad’s final chiron slogan includes the line, “Live Bolder.” But the best, and maybe boldest, thing Pepsi did was making the decision to pull its multimillion-dollar commercial, cutting its losses but preserving the credibility to try again in the future.

How To Apologize Effectively

Mere hours after the tragic plane crash at San Francisco airport, executives of Asiana Airlines hosted a press conference to issue a formal apology for the accident. As is customary, CEO Yoon Young-doo and Asiana board members expressed their regret with deep bows of contrition in front of media and dignitaries. The Washington Post ran an insightful column about the bows as a symbol of the paternalistic corporate culture of South Korea and its possible link to the country’s business success.

For PR pros, however, the Asiana response also offers some reminders of the power of a public apology. And like Akio Toyoda’s humility in the wake of the product acceleration failures that precipitated a worldwide brand crisis for Toyota in 2010, it highlights a vivid contrast in cultures.

The typical public apology from an Asian executive often seems more sincere than those of his U.S. counterparts. Bowing will do that, but that’s not the only thing. Another reason is that our litigious society mitigates against any acceptance of responsibility, lest it be construed as liability. When the PR strategy and the legal strategy are in conflict, legal often triumphs, much to the chagrin of many communications professionals.

But there are other factors at work here. Intercultural experts point out that for Americans, an apology is an admission of error and the chief apologizer is confessing to weakness. In many Asian cultures, by contrast, a mea culpa is seen as a simple expression of regret and a desire to repair the relationship and/or move on.

The American view of the Asiana apology, therefore, may be attributing more authenticity and depth of feeling to it than it deserves. But the sight of the line of top executives bent over in a bow, coupled with language expressing “utmost sympathy and regret,” and “apologizing most deeply” is a heck of a good start to restoring Asiana’s reputation. In any language, an effective apology should offer some essential attributes.

Make it sincere

Whether a public mea culpa or a private apology, the expression must seem true. A false apology, or one made under duress, only does more damage.

Take responsibility

Yes, it’s tough or even impossible to accept the blame in our lawsuit-crazed culture, but owning the situation is the only way to move past the harm done. That’s why the lame, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended” statement is completely ineffectual.

Don’t explain or justify

While it’s tempting to put context around the offense, it almost always undermines the sincerity of the regret. Explaining can also raise more questions than it answers. In a catastrophic situation like the Asiana crash, where the facts or causes aren’t yet determined, it’s best to apologize quickly and pledge to get to the bottom of the situation.

Fix the problem

This is where many companies fall short. The most effective apologies are those that seek to prevent the issue from recurring, make reparations, or commit to positive change. Here, there must be teeth in the promise, or the entire apology falls apart.

And if all else fails, there’s always that deep bow.

The PR Verdict On Paula Deen’s Apology (Again)

From the frying pan to….yesterday Paula Deen, the queen of comfort cooking, faced Matt Lauer, and the outcome was not so comfortable for either one.

Some have criticized Lauer for his brusque grilling of Deen. My view is that he took a no-nonsense approach, cutting to the business issues and her motive for finally living up to her original commitment to a live interview.

The real story here is Paula’s apology, if you can call it that. It was all over the place. Things started out okay, with Deen describing herself as “overwhelmed” – an honest, but not loaded, word. Then she thanked the partners who have stood by her and declined to blame The Food Network for dropping her. All good.

Then things really got overwhelming. First, she insisted she had used the n-word only once, after being robbed at gunpoint by a black person “a world ago.” This contradicted her deposition and her original excuse that she grew up in the days of Jim Crow. Her demeanor became indulgently sorrowful. The drama peaked when she tearfully challenged anyone watching who has never said something they regret to “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.” Whoa, Paula. It was both a not-so-coded biblical reference and an overemotional response.

As the interview wrapped, defiant Paula emerged, proclaiming “I is what I is,” and referring darkly to “someone evil out there” who sabotaged her out of envy, presumably the former restaurant manager who filed the suit that set up the media feast. Lauer, rather than following up on her reference to enemies and “horrible lies”, ended the interview. For Deen, this was probably a good thing.

Is Paula cooked? It does look that way. Her handling of the interview lacked the key ingredients for an effective public apology and her inconsistent and overemotional responses stirred things up instead of calming them down. It’s best to take responsibility, express sincere remorse, then make amends if possible. Deen would have done well to admit the truth, talk about what she has learned, ask for forgiveness, and pledge her time and/or money to a cause or program that promotes tolerance.

Also, an effective mea culpa doesn’t focus on the one apologizing. It should be about those offended or harmed by the situation, – in this case, sponsors, staff, viewers, and fans. It would have been impossible to deflect all the questions about her business and her brand, but she didn’t even try to take herself out of it. Ironically, her apology video, though stilted and inadequate, did a better job on that score.

Deen’s fumbles may also be tied to a lack of good PR counsel. Her original publicist, a 36-year veteran of the biz, resigned after Deen disclosed her diabetic condition and announced a partnership with Novo Nordisk. I’ve no idea who’s been advising her now, but she should consider a change. There’s a rumor that she’s hired Judy Smith, the D.C.-based crisis guru known as the model for Kerry Washington’s character on “Scandal.” I hope it’s true, because Paula needs professional help.

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.

The Most Notable CEO Apologies Of 2012

The public apology has long been a staple of PR and reputation management, and this year saw a large number of C-level mea culpas. Some were mandated, while others were designed to beg forgiveness, right wrongs, or restore good will. Here’s my list of the most notable.

Picture this: Instagram is forced to backpedal after issuing a modified Terms of Service policy that many feared could “effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency.” In a blog post, cofounder Kevin Systrom blamed “confusing language” and pledged not to sell users’ photos. His statement did quell one controversy, but the social media storm has raised other issues about privacy and user protections.

Pink slip-up? The saddest, and possibly most ineffectual, apology might have been that delivered by former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson about his “resume inflation.”  The embattled chief issued a statement taking responsibility for the goof and apologizing to Yahoo employees, but without any explanation or clear way forward. It wasn’t enough; he was ousted after just four months on the job.

J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon‘s apology for unprecedented trading losses was surprisingly robust for the previously untouchable banker; in “contrite” and widely publicized testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, he called the bank’s $2 billion error “embarrassing,” adding “the buck stops with me.” Dimon’s statement got mixed reviews, primarily due to his opposition to regulatory measures that many feel might have kept the bucks in the bank. The apology was articulate, yet Dimon’s credibility took a hit.

Among the most delayed and ultimately impotent apologies was that offered by Nancy Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Brinker’s explanation of Komen’s initial decision to withhold funding from Planned Parenthood, in which she admitted that she “made some mistakes” in letting things be politicized, wasn’t enough to pacify critics, and the group’s fundraising continues to be less than healthy.

The most shocking public admission of culpability might have been delivered by Irene Dorner, president and CEO of HSBC Bank USA. Dorner testified about the lack of controls that allowed Mexican drug cartels and other illicit organizations to launder billions through HSBC’s U.S. operation. Though the misconduct predated her tenure, Dormer expressed “deep regret” for the lapses and pledged that the bank had “burned bridges” so that it could not happen again. But many were skeptical of a whitewash, given the bank’s relatively light fine, and no criminal prosecutions.

Talk about bad taste. One of the lamer apologies came from Popchips CEO Keith Belling after a video ad threatened to fry the brand’s reputation. In it, Ashton Kutcher impersonated different characters in what resembled a video dating parody. One persona was “Raj,” a Bollywood producer complete with brownface and a phony singsong meant to be an Indian accent. Many viewers thought it racist, prompting Belling to respond, “Our team worked hard to create a light-hearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs…. I take full responsibility and apologize to anyone we offended.” In my book, anyone who utters such a mealy-mouthed sound bite should eat his words; a half-baked apology usually makes things worse. Yet, Popchips took down the video and the food fight calmed down.

By most accounts, the Apple CEO Tim Cook’s mea culpa following its Maps debacle hit all the right notes. The full letter to customers is a masterpiece of good communications. It was swift and direct, and in the statement Cook took responsibility for the lapse and pledged to fix it. He won extra credibility by recommending that users download competitive products until such time as Apple could get it right. The apology succeeded because it reminded us how rare it is for Apple to disappoint its customers.

Jamie Dimon’s Apology Tour: Is It Enough?

JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s apology to shareholders last week managed to fulfill at least three prerequisites for a public mea culpa. It was swift, it was direct, and the CEO took responsibility for the bank’s $3 billion trading loss in a hedge gone wrong.

Dimon used words like “egregious,” “sloppy,” “stupid,” and “self-inflicted.” “The buck stops with me,” was how he answered a reporter’s question after the shareholder meeting.  The words were refreshing given the recent events, which have pundits no longer worried about Too Big To Fail. It’s more like Too Complicated To Control. Which is even scarier.

And Dimon appears to have come through the worst of the crisis relatively unscathed. He survived a movement to strip him of power, and the press has treated him fairly well, considering the size of the loss.

Taking responsibility for such a blunder is riskier than it looks, which is one reason why executives so rarely face the music in a public way. It tends to increase legal liability. And in this case, it’s probably already made life easier for shareholder lawyers. They’re certain to sue, and the public apology may add fuel to the fire, raising the odds for a rich settlement.

The bank can easily withstand the trading loss, but that’s just the tip of the reputation iceberg. Not only has Dimon’s personal credibility been tarnished, but his influence on questions around financial reform is pretty well shot. His historical opposition to greater regulation, especially his reference to the bank’s trading risks as a “tempest in a teapot” less than a month before the disastrous trades, will haunt him.

Dimon’s initial response on tougher financial rules was to stay the course (“Just because we’re stupid doesn’t mean everyone else was.”) Then, he seemed to side-pedal when questioned by shareholders, maintaining that the bank supports “an awful lot” of the Volcker rule.  Huh?

There’s room for many positions here, but an essential ingredient to an effective apology is a commitment to be part of the solution, if one exists. The fence-sitting comments have reinforced the Too Complicated concerns and launched not only the lawsuits, but a federal investigation. So the public apology is just the first test. The tougher ones are yet to come.

How Not To Apologize: A Lesson In "Apology PR"

The past two weeks have seen a cascade of misdeeds to fascinate apology-watchers like me.

Where to begin? There’s the mushrooming scandal over the GSA’s $820,000 taxpayer-funded junket to Las Vegas in 2010. And the even seamier “hookergate” involving members of the Secret Service (though at least they were cost-conscious in their indiscretion!)

There was also plenty of outrage over ill-chosen public comments. In an unexpected gift to the Romney campaign, progressive pundit Hilary Rosen managed to anger stay-at-home moms, conservatives, and even the White House with her comment about Ann Romney.  Then there were the rogue remarks of rocker and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent, whose wacky anti-Obama rant earned him a visit from the Secret Service itself, in a nice bit of symmetry.

Most of the above have resulted in a public mea culpa. Some are baffling and nearly all are terrible. Inspired by the past week of apologies, I’ve drafted a guide for how not to deliver a face-saving public apology:

Wait it out. This is what Hilary Rosen tried to do in the wake of a strong reaction to her statement that “Ann Romney hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Though Rosen explained she was objecting to candidate Romney’s attempt to liken his wife to struggling working moms rather than criticizing her choice, the controversy didn’t abate until she formally apologized. Politics? Of course, but if you live by the sword, sometimes you have to fall on it.

Blame the victim. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended….” is how the classic non-apology starts. This is a flawed communications strategy because it evades responsibility and seems to put the blame on the injured parties. There’s a bit of this in Romney adviser Richard Grenell’s public apology for his Twitter updates criticizing Hillary Clinton’s appearance, Rachel Maddow’s style, and Callista Gingrich’s hair, among others. “I apologize for the hurt (the tweets) caused,” reads Grenell’s statement. A more sincere message would have gone something like this: “I attacked people in petty and personal ways because I don’t like their politics, and that is immature and wrong.”

Blame the system. Similarly, pointing fingers at forces beyond your control to deflect responsibility is unlikely to be effective. Disgraced former GSA head Johnson tries to have it both ways in her apology. She accepts responsibility but spends more time explaining that the infamous Vegas junket was well underway when she was appointed and that she was “unaware of the scope.” Weak.

Make it about you. Johnson goes further by expressing sincere regret for the GSA fiasco. Her words are affecting…until the end. “I will mourn for the rest of my life my failed appointment…” is how she closes, but her statement should be more about the taxpayers, not her career. Similarly, in Rush Limbaugh’s apology to Sandra Fluke for calling her a “slut” last month, he spends the bulk of his statement justifying his own outrage over the contraception issue, then ends with the single line, “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.” Not enough, Rush.

Make light. Actually, humor (of the self-deprecating variety) can occasionally work, but it’s highly risky and must be deployed with extreme caution. An exception to the “no humor” rule and my favorite use of self-deprecation may be Robert Scoble’s blunt and refreshing self-indictment for an opinionated rant against an online commenter last year. Scoble was man enough to drink his own (apology-flavored) Kool-Aid in a blog post titled, “How I Made Myself Into An A-Hole.” Well said.

Well-Handled: FedEx Delivers On "Apology PR"

Talk about heavy lifting. Pity the communications pros at FedEx. At the height of the holiday season, when the company wants to focus on its state-of-the-art technology and customer service prowess, it’s the recipient of an unwelcome holiday gift – a viral video that threatens real damage to its brand.

One careless employee and 20 seconds – caught on camera – is all it takes these days. The video in question shows a FedEx delivery person heaving a computer monitor over a resident’s gate rather than taking an extra minute to ring the bell. The package toss instantly lit up Twitter and soon had mainstream media buzzing. At over four million views so far, it gives new meaning to the term “special delivery.”

Now, this isn’t the first time FedEx employees have been caught manhandling bags – a casual browse through YouTube can attest to that. But this mis-delivery was very clearly at a residence (where the recipient was at home and watching.) Combine that with a  slow news week and the rapidly growing social Web, and it adds up to real PR baggage.

To its credit, FedEx dropped everything – in a good way – to respond to the mini-crisis. It fast-tracked a video apology from operations executive Matthew Thornton in which Thornton vows to redouble efforts to regard each delivery as “precious cargo” and make the incident a “learning experience” for the company. The script is a bit stilted, but he’s credible and appropriately concerned.

FedEx tells us that the situation’s been handled. It has shipped out the sloppy employee (to a warehouse, apparently) and replaced the customer’s monitor. It then takes the opportunity to restate its corporate values, which is a savvy PR move.

Good job, FedEx. In a few weeks, with some luck, a kinder, gentler FedEx will emerge and the package panic will be relegated to the crisis PR archives, indexed under “well handled.” In the meantime, keep on truckin.’