A PR View Of CEO Apologies

Most public relations experts agree that the rules of the public apology are relatively simple. Be sorry. Do it quickly. Take full responsibility. Where possible, communicate how you will fix the problem.
But if apologizing is so simple, why do so many CEOs botch the apologies? Sometimes it’s because legal advice conflicts with PR counsel. It may also be due to those who are delivering the mea culpa.

As the face of the corporation, many CEOs are naturally charismatic. Some are effortlessly sincere. But in a high-stakes situation where a strong apology is required, most leaders need help with the art of expressing remorse. Media training can be a useful communications tool, whether it be for national TV interviews or phone chats with small trade press.

Several factors determine how the public will receive a video/interview apology. A good apology can actually be turned into an advantage for a company. Netflix, for example, bounced back after it mishandled the announcement of a short-lived split of its services. (Remember Qwikster?)

Not all behavior is intuitive. A study of video corporate apologies conducted by researchers Leanne ten Brinke and Gabrielle S. Adams found that the more the CEOs smiled, the more the stock prices dropped. Yet share prices rose as the CEOs expressed more regret.

Here are our nominations for best CEO in a video apology:

CEO John Stumpf, Wells Fargo

Scandal: 2016. Charging customers for phony accounts
Time elapsed before TV apology: 5 days
Contrition? He does express regret, but it’s hard to tell if it’s due to the fake accounts or the negative PR that resulted. In interview with Jim Cramer on his CNBC show, Stumpf accepts no real responsibility. Before the interview starts, he jumps the gun by cutting off the host, stuttering a bit, and leaping into his statement. He does say “we are sorry,” but not “I am sorry.” Most significantly, he blames lower-level employees, saying they “misinterpreted” the company’s sales incentive policy. Yet anyone watching can spot the flaw in his explanation. If 1% (over 5000) employees are fired for defrauding their customers, how can management not take responsibility for this behavior?
Body language: He used lots of hand gestures but sometimes they make him look defensive. Yet it’s worth noting that overall, Stumpf is a good spokesperson. The eye contact is strong; he leans forward and sits at attention.
Apology accepted? Denied. He was forced to resign about a month after the scandal broke. Even a strong on-camera performance couldn’t overcome the problem with the apology itself.


CEO Rick Smith, Equifax

Scandal: 2017 Epic data breach
Time elapsed: A video statement was released on the same day *(but the breach had been discovered by Equifax two months prior)
Contrition? It takes Smith a full minute to get to the apology. He expresses regret, but hardly takes full responsibility. To his credit, he uses the pronoun ‘I,’ but his language is stilted. The stock phrase “I deeply regret the incident” sounds designed to distance him from the problem. It would have been more effective to say, “I am very sorry that our customers’ information was stolen on my watch.”
Body language: His posture is a bit stiff. He omits a tie, so he looks more relatable, yet he speaks in a monotone. His eye contact is shifty, which is a hazard of using a teleprompter. This video apology raises the question of when to use a recorded statement instead of an interview. The advantage is that there’s no aggressive journalist to challenge him, which can be very important for a nervous or media-shy executive. The problem, however, is that it’s easy to come across as stiff and antiseptic. And if the lines aren’t memorized it’s likely to seem fake. At least in an actual interview, there’s a chance for the CEO to seem like there’s blood coursing through his veins.
Apology accepted? Not accepted. After getting grilled by Congress, he “retired” with golden parachute intact.


CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Scandal: 2018: Not informing the users of a massive data breach
Time elapsed before TV interview: 4 days.
Contrition? Yes, Zuckerberg is sorry. You’d be sorry too if you lost $9 billion in wealth in 48 hours. In the CNN interview, he never evades the tough questions. He outlines coming solutions and good things Facebook is doing. He appears reasonable and credible. He does not appear aloof, or as if he’s making excuses. Zuckerberg does not like interviews, and he admits as much in this one, which is a show of honesty that actually helps the apology. He later admits that perhaps the company should be regulated, explaining that the question isn’t “whether” but “how” regulations should be applied. It’s a disarming approach, both in the message and the delivery.
Body language: Excellent eye contact (too much?). He is actively engaged, yet fairly relaxed. His dress is casual – in typical big-tech fashion — which helps promote an image of accessibility.
Apology accepted? Remains to be seen.


CEO Oscar Munoz, United Airlines

Scandal: 2017: Ticketed passenger dragged off plane.
Time elapsed before TV apology: 3 days
Contrition: Not sufficient. After releasing a pair of inadequate public statements, Munoz is forced to go on TV. In his interview with ABC’s Rebecca Jarvis, he says he feels “shame” and clearly attempts to appear regretful. Instead, he comes off as more annoyed and angry than ashamed. Munoz fails to evoke much humanity. He uses the pronouns “we” and “our” instead of “I” — which can indicate a lack of acceptance of personal responsibility.
Body language: His posture is fine, but he sits back in his chair, which can make one seems defensive. He does not maintain good eye contact with the journalist. He often looks as if he’s trying to remember his messaging.
Accepted or denied? Accepted. Still CEO, though his planned promotion to chairman was scuttled.

 


CEO Steve Ells, Chipotle

Scandal: 2015: E. coli & norovirus outbreaks
Time elapsed before TV interview: Over a month.
Contrition? As CEO apologies go, this was solid. In the interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the concern shows on his stern, serious face. He has clearly benefited from excellent media training. He gets to the apology immediately and uses the pronoun “I.” He shows his fallibility and seems very authentic. Ells talks extensively about all the things they will do to correct the problem, promising they will be 10-15 years ahead of the industry in food safety. When Matt Lauer asks him about stock prices, he smartly says, “That’s not what we’re thinking about now. We’re thinking about safety…”
Body language: He sits with good posture and leans forward. He maintains good eye contact, but not too much. His dress is a bit more casual than most CEOs – a sweater under a jacket, which makes him appear less aloof or corporate than, say, Munoz.
Accepted or denied? Debatable, because, as strong as Ells’s performance was, Chipotle continued to struggle with fresh outbreaks of food-borne illness among customers. Ells stepped down in late 2017, which shows that you can be an excellent apologizer, but if you don’t fix the problem, it won’t matter in the long run.

Better Brand PR: How To Work With A Third-Party Spokesperson

Brand spokesperson. It’s a time-honored PR strategy, and for good reason. The right spokesperson can add depth to your message, help tell a story, and confer appealing attributes that the brand may lack or need to amplify.

But borrowing expertise, or sheer glamour, from a third party always carries risks. Just ask Samsung, which suffered embarrassment when director Michael Bay walked off the stage after a teleprompter snafu during the unveiling of a new curved-screen TV at CES. But while the problem there may have been one of preparation over temperament, the most common challenge is typically the choice of spokesperson.

Here are some tips to mitigate risk and maximize the upside of a third-party spokesperson.

Make it credible. If you’re going to link your brand to an external person, there needs to be a credible tie to him or her. The equity of each “brand” needs to mesh so that they are congruent in imagery and “personality.” Market research and “Q” ratings are helpful, but in the case of a celebrity, the reason for the choice should be intuitive not just to marketers and PR people, but to your sister-in-law.

Consider an expert over a celebrity. A celebrity isn’t right for all situations, of course. A credible subject-matter expert may represent your client’s interests with greater authenticity when it comes to earned media interviews. They can also offer an easier and more cost-effective working relationship and are often more motivated to do a better job delivering messages in interviews.

You cannot over-research. Once you have a workable list of candidates, find out everything you can about each of them: their background, credentials, experience, history and particularly any red flags that may be a clue to how a working relationship could fail. Everything is online now, so be thorough!

Spell everything out in the agreement. The odds are, whether the spokesperson is an athlete, author, or a physician, they have a healthy ego. This may be what helps make them a good choice, but take care in working with this type of individual. Do your due diligence, and make sure every detail is spelled out in your legal agreement, down to the specific number of brand mentions. Be sure that your personality is accompanied by a pro to everything they do.

Conduct a message training. It doesn’t matter how experienced your spokesperson is with public speaking or media interviews. S/he cannot possibly master brand messages without formal prep. Build in rehearsals and contingencies, particularly in the case of events and conferences. A dress rehearsal in the actual venue is ideal where possible, even in a forum where there’s a teleprompter, as Samsung’s experience shows.

Have a Plan B and C. Begin by discussing internally what to do in the event of mechanical or human malfunction and have scenarios in place. Consider appointing a company rep to act as back-up spokesperson in case of a last-minute change. At the venue, arrive early, spend time there, meet with the staff and have back-up auto-cue, laptops, thumb drives or whatever it will take – the show must go on!

If all else fails? Have a sense of humor and go with the flow. Unless you’re giving a life-or-death White House briefing, any smart PR or marketing person can make the requisite PR lemonade out of lemons. As a case in point, Samsung’s Joe Stinziano managed to gracefully close out his press briefing, and the whole episode may have even drawn more positive attention to the TV than it would have otherwise received.

Savvy PR Spokesperson Selection

In PR we are often called upon to help a client find a third-party expert to get its message to the masses. It is the agency’s task to define the spokesperson role, vet candidates and negotiate terms of an agreement. We like to follow 3 “golden rules” of savvy spokesperson selection to ensure success.

Fit like a glove (or very close) We look for spokespeople who have an authentic connection to the product or service being pitched. For example, in securing a spokesperson for a weight loss product, the assignment called for an expert who was not only well-versed in “diet-speak” but actually needed to trim down. We also ask ourselves if the person appeals to the demographic and is a “believer” in the product or service.

Credentials are key In today’s competitive media market, a spokesperson who perfectly aligns with your client’s product or service is not enough to effectively spread the word. We look for sought-after spokespeople who are interviewed often, who have their own media contacts and their own creative ideas for TV segments and print pieces. It also helps bolster credibility if the spokesperson has penned any previous articles or written a book or blog on the subject.

(Many happy) Returns on the Investment Investigate all fees associated with the spokesperson agreement so there are no surprises. For example, most contracted spokespeople have a “day rate” for working days and a lesser rate for travel days. These often include expected incidentals such as meals, but can also include some that require finessing such as the spokesperson that wanted their child care paid for. Experienced spokespeople will charge for hair and make-up and transportation which may really tax a budget unless you are prepared.

What else do you look for when securing a spokesperson?