I’m really sorry. Unless I’m not

Public apologies as an art form need a serious overhaul because they have a very fundamental problem. No one believes them.
Look at what just happened to Rupert Murdoch. The tabloid baron apologized in person to the family of a British murder victim whose voicemails were hacked by his reporters. The family’s lawyer said the family believed Murdoch was “very humbled and very shaken and very sincere.” Unfortunately for Murdoch, no one else seemed to believe him. Poke around the blogosphere and you’ll find a lot of comments along the lines of “Murdoch’s just sorry he got caught.”  
When even the victim’s family can’t vouch for an apology, you know the art form is really in a sorry state.
Murdoch’s is just the latest public apology to fall flat. Tiger Woods, BP, Charlie Sheen, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris Brown and John Edwards are just a few of the celebrities whose recent apologies went over like day-old road kill.
Those of us in the PR industry need to take notice because the odds are that we’re going to have to help a client apologize for something, someday. If the apology is tanking as a form of public contrition, our repertoire of tools is severely limited. So here’s a suggestion for rebooting the public apology. The next time a client is in the broth and needs your help saying they’re sorry, try asking them this question: “Are you?”
No, seriously. How often does the person in the fix reflexively bark, “sorry, sorry, sorry!” without really understanding what they should be sorry for? That’s a big part of why people don’t believe apologies. How much more credibility would a company or an individual have if they said something along the lines of:
“I stepped in it big time. I understand that what I did or said caused a lot of people pain and loss. But right now, I only understand that on a factual level. Before I can sincerely apologize, I need to spend time with the people I have offended to learn why I thought I could disrespect them in the first place. I need to hear directly from them how my actions affected them. I’ve asked and they’ve agreed. At the same time, I have to examine the thoughts, feelings, prejudices and blind spots that got me into this mess to begin with. When I figure them out, I can ask for forgiveness with humility and a true awareness of the damage I have caused. I expect to be standing in front of you again soon, able to offer the people I have injured an apology that comes from understanding and genuine regret.”
Apology purists will argue that this isn’t an apology. Okay, it’s not. It’s a promise of an apology, with the apologist publicly putting themselves on the hook by setting high expectations. They’re showing a willingness to learn, not just go through the motions. It’s a high-risk PR strategy, but how much more risky is it than an apology that no one believes?

Japan's disaster: why crisis plans collapse

Radiation checkGovernments and companies thoughtfully put plans in place for crises like the one unfolding in Japan, but as we can see, they often unravel.

First, we’ll list some of the communications blunders we saw last week. Then we’ll get an exclusive take from a seasoned crisis communications expert.

The mistakes:

  • Japanese officials continued to deny water from the cooling pools was gone (and radiation levels were not harmful) even as helicopters scrambled to drop water on the fuel rods and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) employees carried out what were arguably suicide missions. It was left to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) head Gregory Jacko to explain that radiation levels were "extremely high" and conditions are "life threatening."
  • Emperor Akhito delivered a rare address to the nation, but it was a full five days after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck.
  • TEPCO failed to keep Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the loop over the company’s mishandling of the Fukushima plant explosions and subsequent radioactive leaks. That’s probably why he slammed the company mercilessly and publicly.
  • While the Japanese balanced “on a knife edge waiting to see if the nuclear power plant and radiation leaks can be brought under control,” observed Reuters, TEPCO chief executive Masataka Shimizu “all but vanished from the public eye.”
  • When it comes to the food supply, no one’s steering the ship. The world is hearing about elevated radioactivity in milk and spinach but is confused by what The Wall Street Journal describes as “the absence of a central authority that can oversee the wide-reaching investigation and decide what steps should be taken.”

This framework of distrust is part of a larger pattern in Japan’s history, says crisis expert Helio Fred Garcia of Logos Consulting Group. "In previous nuclear accidents, they've lied or covered it up, which changes the dynamic,” he told Checkmate in a phone interview. “People think, ‘they’re lying to me.’ It’s a case where they need an independent level of validation for virtually everything that is said."

Garcia reminds us of two fatal flaws in times of crisis.

"The single biggest predictor of distrust and reputational harm is the perception that people in charge don't care,” he said. “The second is when they are perceived as not addressing legitimate expectations and pretending something is better than it is."

Complicating matters is the misalignment between governments and the companies that operate the plants, a typical dynamic in Japan. Different entities have different kinds of concerns, for example, litigation vs. political concerns: “It’s a misalignment which infuriates people who are supposed to be accountable to us,” Garcia said.

A common mistake during a crisis is trying too hard to make people feel better. “I believe Michael Brown lied at that press conference during Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to prevent panic, but the consequences were far worse,” said Garcia. “This approach gets even more complicated in a Japanese culture where saving face is a strong motivator.”

What should government and corporations do during monumental crises like Japan involving tens of thousands of lives (missing and dead), trillions in property losses and growing health concerns?

Trust, transparency and consistency are the keys, Garcia said.

“Tell us what you know, tell us what you don’t know, tell us what we’re supposed to do and tell us what you’re going to do,” he advised. “Then do what you promised. Then continuously repeat this communication cycle."

Apple's sour grapes bruises a stellar brand

Even the ultra-cool sometimes just don’t get it.

After a few haughty responses earlier in the week to complaints about its iPhone 4 dropping calls, Apple made a smart move and offered free cases iPhone 4 consumers. The cases will prevent the “death grip” problem that cause the phone’s reception to fade and sometimes drop calls if held a certain way.
But Apple CEO Steve Jobs apparently just couldn’t just hand out the cases and live to fight another day. Standing on a dais in front of an image that said “Antennagate,” he had to show a video illustrating problems with competing phones like the Blackberry. Then he insisted there’s nothing really wrong with the iPhone 4 – that the situation is a media creation.
“We're not feeling right now that we have a giant problem we need to fix,” Jobs said during a press conference at Apple’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters. “This has been blown so out of proportion that it’s incredible. I know it’s fun to have a story, but it’s less fun when you're on the other end of it.”
Has Jobs grown too accustomed to the rainbows and unicorns he usually gets from the media? I have to wonder if his PR people warned him he’d look like a whiner if he complained about the press because that’s how he came off – defensive. The media did not, as Jobs intimated, create this problem. Apple’s arrogant response to customer complaints did. When customers got the high hat from Apple, they started complaining publicly through social media and the news media picked up on the story.
When are executives going to learn a little humility and contrition go a long way in situations like this? You’d think that coming so soon on the heels of Toyota’s and BP’s PR Armageddons that Apple, normally a PR-savvy company, would have had a response as slick as its products. Considering the vast reservoirs of customer good will it has to draw on, Apple could have snuffed this out before it became a problem. It might have had to eat a little crow by admitting its hot-shot phone had a flaw, but at least it wouldn’t be getting bludgeoned in the press at the same time.

BP triggers dark side for augmented reality

No sooner did brand managers and marketers discover augmented reality (AR) as the next big marketing frontier then did consumers find a way to use AR to voice their own opinions.
 
AR developers Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking are keeping BP’s feet to the fire with a new AR iPhone app that lets users visualize the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at their local BP gas station or wherever they happen to see a BP logo.
 
Called “the leak in your hometown,” the app transforms the logo into the source of the deep sea gusher. Just point your phone at the logo and your outrage and sense of futility over the unceasing disaster is rekindled.

If you’re new to augmented reality, it’s technology that overlay’s digital information and imagery onto your view of real-world things, typically using a webcam or smartphone camera as the visual conduit.
 
The BP gusher app is pretty simplistic as far as AR apps go. Yet it’s a brand manager’s nightmare. As the app’s creators describe on their blog … 
An important component of the project is that it uses BP’s corporate logo as a marker, to orient the computer-generated 3D graphics. Basically turning their own logo against them. This repurposing of corporate icons will offer future artists and activists a powerful means of expression which will be easily accessible to the masses and at the same time will be safe and nondestructive.
Remember back when brand managers first swooned over the potential of social media as a new direct-to-consumer marketing channel, not yet realizing how the technology gives consumers their own, sometimes critical, voice? With AR, it’s déjà vu all over again. Google ‘augmented reality’ and ‘marketing’ and you'll see what I mean. But the effusive praise by marketers will soon be tempered as they discover that AR can be a double-edged sword, as much a threat to their companies’ corporate reputation as it is a powerful marketing tool. 

Next BP victim: 'brand journalism'

The brand journalist is the one of the most compelling marketing concepts I've encountered in a while. Leave it to BP to spoil a good thing.

Read more from our CleanSpeak blog here.

Seven social media lessons from Nestle's reputation crisis

If a company still doesn’t "get" how social media has changed the rules of branding by empowering consumers, look no further than the ongoing Nestle firestorm.
 
Nestle has been in trouble for awhile, mostly related to its continuing use of palm oil in its products. Palm oil is linked to environmental nastiness, including deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and endangered species loss.
 
Caroline McCarthy of CNET News shared a balanced post about the Nestle brand crisis, triggered by ticked off consumers on Facebook. Nestle was clueless about the power shift enabled by social media and acted in an old-school authoritarian “we own the brand” way. It not only didn’t work, it backfired.
 
There are vital lessons from the Nestle debacle for professional communicators advising their execs or clients: 
 
1.     Before diving into social media, make sure key decision makers who think they want to go social media truly “get” how the game is played. It’s not a press release.
 
2.     Make sure they understand how Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. aren’t one way vehicles (where the brand dominates the message), but an invitation to a never ending dance with constantly changing partners, some of whom are never your friend and may only want to dance if they can slap your ego and try to make you a better dancer.
 
3.     Don’t go social media unless the brand is willing to take the risk of jumping off the cliff, giving up control to customers and consumers who will express their viewpoints, both positive and negative.
 
4.     If your company or client wants to control the message, then social media isn’t for them. Look at how Nestle tried to tell people not to post their logos. It will incur a wrath not unlike "It’s not OK for people to use altered versions of your logos but it’s OK for you to alter the face of Indonesian rainforests? Wow!"
   
5.     Creating LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts is just the first step. The goal isn’t to tweet or post, it’s to build an active community and an authentic two-way relationship based on trust. It’s easy to get started in social media, but time-consuming and challenging to remain engaged and build a following.
 
6.     Remember that even if your company or client decides not to engage in social media, this won’t stop rants, rebellion and revolution. People will find a way to express themselves and let it be known they’re disturbed, upset, confused, disappointed or whatever the view. The train has left the station, so be prepared.
 
7.     As we’ve learned from Nestle (and so many others), people don’t want to be scammed, ignored or mistreated. It will come back to bite you. So if your exec or client wants social media to become a positive tool, the brand must be a concerned good listener prepared to take action to correct situations that aren’t right.

Toyota should meet recall questions with big doses of transparency

Until a few days ago, who didn’t want to be Toyota? They had it all. A sterling reputation for quality. The world’s most popular hybrid car. Insanely loyal customers. And in 2009, to crown it all, Toyota ended General Motors’ 77-year run as the world’s largest automaker.
 
It probably would have been nice for Toyota if it could have had some time to celebrate being top dog, but that wasn’t meant to be. The company is playing defense over recalls affecting 9 million of its vehicles worldwide. The news that gas pedal assemblies on its top models can cause sudden acceleration strikes at the most durable part Toyota’s brand image – its reputation for quality. Toyota got great by making quality cars that people could afford. It built that reputation one solid, reliable Corolla, Camry and Prius at a time. Even though competitors like Honda and Nissan were rated just as highly, Toyota was to quality what Volvo was to safety – first among equals and better than everyone else.

Now the auto company that could once do no wrong has shut down production lines and instructed dealers not to sell some of its most popular models. The New York Times reported that Toyota knew about the acceleration problems two years before it issued the recall. Rep. Henry Waxman, one of Congress’ most persistent consumer watchdogs, announced he will hold hearings to investigate the sudden acceleration problem next month.

What’s unfolding is the next great case study on the value of openness and transparency. Toyota has already said it welcomes the chance to address the issue head-on and publicly at Waxman’s hearings. The company has already started a pre-emptive media campaign. Toyota issued statements saying it started working on a solution this fall, when it learned how pervasive the problem was. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda issued a public apology from the World Economic Conference in Davos. Toyota USA President Jim Lentz faced Matt Lauer on the “Today” show. The company announced over the weekend that it has rushed millions of repair kits to dealers.
 
So the court of public opinion is convened. How will the Toyota brand come out the other end? It depends how the company’s mea culpas resonate with the public. If Toyota is perceived as earnest and sincere, history has shown that the public will forgive it and continue to see it as a brand synonymous with quality. If it is perceived as elusive and defensive, then the Toyota brand could become just another name in the pack.

Social media & Haiti

Thanks to social media, the word got out of ravaged Haiti immediately, people mobilized and money was raised instantly.
 
While this isn’t the first time it’s been a vital link in a crisis, it’s invigorating how social media has woven itself into the fabric of traditional media.
 
There was a time, not long ago, when major news organizations relied primarily on its own news gatherers to shape the story. Now an increasing number of media is open to – and relying on – citizen journalists to tell their tales.
 
With buildings crumbled, roads blocked, power out and land-lines dead, mainstream U.S. media relied heavily – especially on Tuesday and early Wednesday - on testimony accumulated from social media from Haitians and Americans. Cell phones, satellite broadband systems and Skype worked. Twitterfeeds provided a real time view of what was unfolding. Blogs like Troy Livesay’s and Carel Pedre got the word out. Images were sent on Twitpic, Facebook and Flickr. YouTube had hundreds of videos posted by Wednesday.
 
CNN is the poster child of this blending of social media and traditional news gathering. While they reportedly have at least seven reporters on the ground in Haiti, they’ve filed highly compelling stories constructed from social media sources. Check out “What we’re hearing via social media.” 80% of this story is shaped by attributed quotes from Twitter users and bloggers in Haiti. CNN’s citizen-filmed iReports spread the word in a personal way.  

Meanwhile, organizations like Red Cross leveraged their presence on Facebook, Twitter, and their own blog to communicate. Their 90999 mobile “insta campaign” is urging cell phone users to text the message “Haiti” to that number to make an instant $10 donation. Twitter users retweeted #HelpHaiti.

Many other organizations got involved and sent out their own fund raising tweets. Daily Finance reported  that $5 million has been raised so far via text messages.

Citizen journalists are re-shaping the news business. Social media is no longer an adolescent finding its way; it’s become deeply embedded, viable and in instances like Haiti, a fresh, objective, needed voice shaping the story. It’s a reinvention of media – an improvement of media - that’s deeper, wider, more personal and much more real time.

Why Tiger Woods, companies and governors can't hide any more

I don’t know if Tiger Woods cheated on Elin with Rachel Uchitel, is a reckless operator, was having an argument, was in a hurry to get out of his house around 2 a.m. or just wanted a new SUV.
 
And I really don’t care.
 
What bugs me in what I thought was an era of growing transparency for all brands (companies, organizations, governments, people) is a still remarkably frequent hesitancy to come clean publicly.
 
At the time of this writing, Tiger still hasn’t spoken with law enforcement authorities, choosing instead to post a statement on his Web site saying, “This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way.”
 
When you’re a billion dollar brand, this course gets a little dicey.
 
Tiger isn’t the first case of failing to come clean fast in 2009; we’ve seen this many times this year.
 
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has denied doing anything wrong for months. He disappeared for days this summer, reappearing to finally admit to an extramarital affair with his Argentinian “soul mate.” Facing 37 ethics charges related to campaign money and airline travel, Sanford still isn’t coming clean.
 
Balloon boy’s Dad, Richard Heene cried crocodile tears, set up a box for reporter questions and told the world his son’s disappearance was “absolutely no hoax.” There were lots of statements and press interviews before the kid climbed down from his attic perch above his garage in Fort Collins, CO and spilled the beans by saying “you had said that we did this for a show.”
 
Apple got pressure when it continued to not disclose what was going on with Steve Jobs’ “hormonal imbalance” weight loss issue, the prevalent angle before his liver transplant disclosure in June. People were upset because boards of public companies need to comply with disclosure laws protecting shareholders when CEO illnesses keep them away from work.
 
It happened again last month when Lazard Ltd.’s CEO Bruce Wasserstein was hospitalized for heart problems. A lot of people were upset because they felt there wasn’t enough transparency around the prominent investment banker’s eight week absence and health disclosure in 2006.
 
Say what you want about David Letterman, but the guy got in front of it.

I agree with social media guru Chris Brogan. In his new book, Trust Agents, he said, “Those who are active on the Web now realize that they need to embrace this new transparency, that all things will now eventually be known. Companies can no longer hide behind a veneer of a shiny branding campaign, because customers are one Google search away from the truth. Further, they join activist groups to stay informed about new practices, so they are often one step ahead of the people trying to profit from them. Companies must acknowledge that they are as naked on the Web as individuals are."

Let’s transparently toast to a more transparent 2010. 

H1N1 vaccine distribution = bad PR for Obama

I’m struggling to make sense of this. Let me see if I get this right.
 
Goldman Sachs received over $1billion from taxpayer bailouts and was the biggest recipient of taxpayer moolah in AIG’s bailout. Yes, they repaid their $10 billion loan with interest, but people in the know are predicting they might pay out as much as $16 billion in bonuses this year.
 
Next in line is Citigroup. They got $45 billion in TARP money plus another $300 billion in FDIC guarantees. All this on top of three previous government bailouts according to Slate.
 
Now comes the H1N1 debacle.
 
Goldman Sachs received 200 doses and Citgroup got 1,200. The New York City Department of Health figured this distribution strategy somehow made sense despite the fact the vaccine continues to be in very short supply. Many high-risk groups – little kids, young people, health care workers, pregnant women, etc. – haven’t been vaccinated. Lots of clinics and hospitals still don’t have their hands on it. People around the country wait in long lines to get it.
 
But Goldman Sachs took it. They received as much vaccine as was allotted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Citigroup took it too, receiving five times more than Goldman Sachs.
 
True public relations practice is supposed to be focused on doing the right thing for society, right, not just one company’s employees? This week’s H1N1 action (and inaction) not only raises reputational management issues, but ethical ones as well.

On the heels of a still-lasting nasty taste in the public’s mouth, it seems these two firms may have been better served – reputationally and ethically – by being bigger picture ponderers, transparent and giving it back.

These vaccine distribution blunders may also create a negative ripple effect for the Obama administration. Arguably, a large segment of the American public may instinctively leap to a “who’s ultimately in charge here?” connection.

Morgan Stanley presumably learned a lesson from its financial brethren and did the right thing when it turned over its entire supply of 1,000 doses to local hospitals. Good for them, but especially for all the people who need it most.

It’s a textbook Bad PR, Good PR lesson for our time.

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