Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Type the word "apology" into Google News and more than 21,000 results appear, taking up more than 100 pages.

Apologies from celebrities to their fans... from celebrities to countries... from newspapers to celebrities... from CEO's to their stockholders... from CEO's to the public... from state legislatures to Native Americans... from countries to other countries... from athletes to their fans...

There are second and third apologies.

Then there are the demands to apologize, and the question lies in the balance if it will ever come.

Today, MSNBC quickly doused a fire when their reporter Courtney Hazlett referred to Spike Lee as "uppity" (and all the baggage that comes with that word). The PR department wasted no time issuing this statement from Hazlett: "Today on 'Morning Joe' I chose my words poorly in describing the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee. I take my responsibilities as a journalist seriously and know that words can have a strong impact. I sincerely apologize to Spike Lee and to the viewers for my comments."

How does one measure the sincerity of apologies? There's no question that "apologizing" is a whole sub-genre of public relations, and if the public already casts doubt on publicity, what makes them think an apology is real? Can an apology save a brand that accidentally (or perhaps unthinkingly) offended or harmed people?

It still amazes me that no matter how many articles are written about handling a crisis, with all the world's crisis experts pontificating about every incident in hindsight, some companies still don't follow the basics.

People sometimes have a hard time apologizing for their personal matters, so when they are on the great corporate stage, it's a knee-jerk reaction to to clam up. Inflated egos won't permit any kind of humbleness. Nobody wants to let the public have one iota of doubt about them, lest they appear inferior.

However, if you truly believe apologizing is a tool in public relations, then it's time to bite the bullet, remove your hat and eat humble pie. I consider it a bee sting -- it hurts at first, then it gets better and you move on. After you apologize, you always follow that by explaining how you improve things in the future because what matters most, next to the act of apologizing, is how things will be better moving forward.

Not all situations are as cut and dried as passengers being stranded for hours on an airplane with no food or drink. When we counseled Maxim magazine, there was plenty of irreverent humor, some of it dark, some of it juvenile. If you're an equal opportunity offender, somebody is going to be thin-skinned and not laugh along with you.

In 2003, Maxim illustrated an article about self-defense using a cartoon figure of peace figure Mahatma Gandhi performing various martial arts moves. The Indian community didn't take it too peacefully and before you knew it, message boards were being filled up, op-eds were written and letters were flying. For a while, the editor's reaction was "We're Maxim. Can't you take a joke?" and actually wrote a rebuttal draft to this effect. No, you can't do that -- you have to respect that some people are not going to get the joke. Finally convincing the editor that it's possible for dear readers to get offended and not like the joke, he relented and wrote the right kind of apology, which I immediately shot over to journalists, assuring them it would appear in a future issue of the magazine.

Not apologizing the right way? Well, I will never set foot in another National Amusements movie theater if I can help it. After a disastrous experience taking my family to the company's Cinema De Lux in White Plains, NY, where the ushers put us in the wrong seats and the popcorn stand was unmanned and closed, I wrote a letter to their customer service in Dedham, MA explaining it all and asking for free passes to make up for the terrible time we had. Five days later, an operations manager sent back a short letter saying they were sorry for the trouble and if I ever had another problem, to speak with the theater manager, Sergio. "We hope to see you again at our theater... see you at the movies!" No, I don't think they will.

The fact is, in the public eye, apologies have to come right away. If you've followed the Democratic primaries and read the recent Wall Street Journal article on how Hillary Clinton's campaign stumbled, they explain how her team failed to "humanize the candidate." It is human to apologize. It is good to apologize and perhaps deep down inside, your heart will agree. Lawsuit filings have been stopped, smear campaigns avoided, firings averted, and public sentiment swayed by the simple act of a heartfelt "I'm sorry" or "We blew it." Followed immediately by announcing how things will be better in the future. You've got to make it up your audience.

With discipline, this is template stuff that brings closure to most messes more often than not. Imagine how it feels for you to be apologized to and you'll understand how potent a tool this is.

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