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As if Uber doesn’t have enough problems, TPG partner and Uber board member David Bonderman’s sexist jibe about over-active women talkers during an all-staff meeting to discuss law firm’s Covington & Burling’s report on harassment and discrimination could hardly have come at a worse time.

To reiterate: Bonderman responded to a comment by fellow Uber board member Ariana Huffington that one woman on a board tends to attract others, by saying ‘Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking’.

Cue a swarm of angry employees and a smoking gun in the form of a leaked audio file.

To which Bonderman responded publicly:

 “Today at Uber’s all-hands meeting, I directed a comment to my colleague and friend Arianna Huffington that was careless, inappropriate, and inexcusable.

“The comment came across in a way that was the opposite of what I intended, but I understand the destructive effect it had, and I take full responsibility for that.

I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud. I need to hold myself to the same standards that we’re asking Uber to adopt. Therefore, I have decided to resign from Uber’s board of directors, effective tomorrow morning.”

He also apologised direct to Huffington and emailed Uber employees:

“I want to apologize to my fellow board member for a disrespectful comment that was directed at her during today’s discussion. It was inappropriate. I also want to apologize to all Uber employees who were offended by the remark. I deeply regret it.”

Recode’s Kara Swisher lambasted Bonderman’s apology and refused to ‘include it [in her coverage] because he does not deserve it in any way’.

I beg to disagree.

Too often, apologies fail to hit the mark as they are seen as naked attempts to dampen down criticism by blaming others’ interpretation of your actions or words, or some other well-trodden form of non-apology apology (of which there are several).

Bonderman deserved the opprobrium. At a minimum, his words were insensitive and showed poor judgement. Yet he saw the error of his ways, relinquished his position on Uber’s Board and apologised quickly, directly and sincerely.

It is a mea culpa that deserves to go a long way towards healing the wounds.

 

‘Never’, cautioned Benjamin Franklin, ‘ruin an apology with an excuse’.

In a letter (below) to customers published online and in newspapers, Southern Railway CEO Charles Horton states he is ‘extremely sorry’ for severe disruptions to his firm’s rail services arising from a change of role for the company’s conductors. And then promptly blames the havoc on the RMT Union.

Horton’s apology comes across as a passing of the buck, and insincere.

It also appears defensive. Given the firm’s reputation for poor services, his wish to be seen as apologetic is understandable.

But this does not mean it is necessarily the right thing to do.

The Oxford Dictionary defines an apology as ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure’.

To be credible, an apology must be seen as heartfelt.

If Southern’s stated commitments to improve its services and employee welfare are genuine, there’s no need for – and certainly little to be gained by – apologising for the union’s behaviour.

Despite misgivings about the word, in this instance Mr Horton may be better advised to express regret or concern. Oxford defines regret as a ‘feeling of sadness, repentance or disappointment’ about a course of action. Horton feels sad that the RMT is compelled to strike … .

Apology or regret aside, Horton should also candidly acknowledge the firm’s service is below par, that there’s a comprehensive plan in place to improve customer satisfaction, and that the role change is one of many actions to this end over the coming weeks and months.

Only by acknowledging the problem and focusing squarely on the solution does Horton have a chance of convincing customers of his sincerity. And only then can he credibly pass off the union as self-interested and intransigent.

 

How you are seen to respond to a crisis matters, and with the internet a critical source of information, especially in a crisis, both your offline and online communication must be credible and consistent.

McDonald’s handling of the ongoing meat expiry scandal in Hong Kong shows clearly what happens when the two channels get out of sync.

How the crisis developed

The backstory: The Shanghai Husi Food Co is found to be selling meat past its expiry date to its customers, including Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut), McDonald’s and Starbucks. Systematically. And condoned by management. Customers on the mainland quickly suspend sales of relevant products. McDonald’s Japan, also a customer, suspends sales of chicken products.

Meantime, McDonald’s Hong Kong denies it has a relationship with Shanghai Husi to the Hong Kong government, which launches an investigation that quickly establishes otherwise. McDonald’s then argues with the local health authority about who should make a statement and when it finally does so itself, issues a ‘sincere’ apology and refuses to answer any questions.

Ham-fisted crisis response

The burger chain subsequently publishes the message below to its local website. A textbook guide to poor crisis communications could hardly have put it any better.

McDHK_meatexpirycrisiswebsitemsg

Some brief observations:

  • The message is not addressed to anyone
  • It appears selectively misleading (‘…we have proactively suspended relevant food ingredients’)
  • There is no hint of remorse
  • The customer apology is buried at the end and appears wholly insincere
  • The company provides no hint of how it is going to stop a similar incident happening in the future
  • It is unhelpful, providing no additional information or ability to ask questions online or via a hotline
  • It is unclear who owns the statement – the local CEO?
  • The English is badly mangled and the paragraphing awkward (at best).

In the final analysis, McDonald’s appears both evasive and incompetent.

All is not lost. Nobody has (yet) fallen ill and Ronald and his companions have plenty of goodwill in the tank – even weddings are held between the hallowed yellow arches here.

To re-build trust they will need to take concrete actions to ensure this cannot happen again, and communicate these actions simply and clearly. While bearing in mind that what is said online is consistent with what is said offline.

It is the oldest PR trick in the book for times of trouble: blame the communication, not the problem.

And it can usually be smelled a mile away.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent attempt to dismiss the social network’s controversial psychological experiment into its users’ moods as ‘poorly communicated’ is a ready example.

In her words:

“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated. And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”

Two days earlier Facebook Data Scientist Adam Kramer had posted on a similar tack:

“I can understand why some people have concerns about [the study], and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused.”

You’d probably not guess from these statements that Facebook had not garnered the consent of users.

Which is unethical and possibly illegal in some markets.

The social network is now being investigated in several jurisdictions for potential abuse of data privacy.

Was Facebook really unaware of its actions? After all, the study was conducted by professional researchers.

It seems unlikely, even if there was apparently little formal oversight of the social network’s data science team.

So it tried to spin its way out of trouble, blaming the description and communication of the study rather than its nature.

In today’s ultra-transparent environment, the truth will out.

Facebook should know this more than most. After all, it is a key protagonist of this open, borderless world.

It should practice what it preaches.

 

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