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.

Smith vs. Southwest: Who Wins The PR Skirmish?

It’s tough to build a good reputation as an airline these days. As musician Dave Carroll reminded us, you don’t even need to be 100% right to gain the upper hand to take on the guys who fly. Mostly, you need to be creative and funny, because airlines carry a lot of baggage when it comes to customer service and brand reputation. And it helps to have a big megaphone.

Well, the industry – symbolized by this month’s poster child, Southwest Airlines – may have met its match in Hollywood biggie Kevin Smith. Southwest hit some heavy PR weather when it took on Smith, who despite his indie creds, has a huge Twitter following and isn’t shy about throwing his weight around. His “tweak-out” was heard around the world. Some have called it “Fat-gate.”

Smith was asked to leave a Southwest flight after he was deemed too much of a, um, wide-body to fit into his seat. But, Smith, who tweeted his outrage in colorful language familiar to anyone who saw “Clerks” or “Chasing Amy,” insists he passed the “armrest test,” and wasn’t too fat to fly. Smith also lashed out at the airline for waiting until he was seated, with bags stowed, before he was bounced.

Being no social media novice, Southwest responded quickly to the gathering PR storm, contacting Smith on Twitter and eventually by telephone at his home. As the latest example of corporate apology communications, its handling of the incident showed social savvy, although it left some PR-watchers up in the air over mixed messages.

After the story blew up, Southwest at first stayed the course, politely but firmly citing its “passengers of size policy” and the comfort and safety of all who fly. Then, after speaking directly with Smith (and possibly also learning that he was invited onto the Larry King show to discuss the snafu), a Southwest rep offered a more heartfelt – if halfway – apology on its blog.

There’s something for everyone

But, here’s the thing about the Smith snafu. In my view, everybody wins a little here. First, the dustup received an extraordinary amount of attention, without a single live interview with Smith himself. Maybe it was just the holiday weekend, typically a slow news time. But, it says something about the power and weight of social media, and its influence with mainstream press.

Though Southwest took some heat, its quick response, coupled with a witty blog post and subsequent apology, makes it look in touch and engaged, as well as caring about its passengers (at least, the bulk of them) and quick to address a plus-sized PR problem.

As for Smith, some have claimed the whole thing was a publicity stunt for his upcoming film. I doubt it, particularly when the “passenger of size” policy is so randomly enforced (which is one of the problems here.) But, I’d be surprised if it didn’t boost awareness of Smith’s next project. And, given Smith’s challenge that if Southwest flies its airline seat to New York, he’ll prove he’s fit to fly by sitting in it, live, on The Daily Show, he’s not done yet.

Customer service and PR overlap, for better and worse

But, besides raising industry consciousness about sensitivity and consistency, the best thing about the Smith rampage – as expressed in 140-character updates – may be what it does for customer service. The convergence of customer service and brand public relations has real implications for both PR professionals and for how companies handle customer complaints. Any company who doesn’t realize this is risking its reputation.

Humor helps

The final benefit of the skirmish is its entertainment value. Most of his tweets can’t be repeated here, but, as some have claimed, they could be the best thing he’s written in years. After blasting the airline as “sizeist” and “rude” but finally landing, Smith tweeted,

“Hey @SouthwestAir! I’ve landed in Burbank. Don’t worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”

But, in the end, this particular Smith drama is also self-limiting in its power to inflict brand damage, for the same reason it’s interesting. I mean, who isn’t mad at the airlines? As one commenter put it,

“Kevin, you know who has an airline nightmare story? Everyone. Now shut up. “