The Great debateCan an apology make it all better?October 15, 2013
On September 30, 2013, the head of a family-owned pasta giant, Guido Barilla, succumbed to public criticism of a comment he made the previous week, and issued a video apology. In the video, Barilla delicately referenced the highly publicised gaffe he made during an interview with Italian news agency, ANSA, and attempted to make amends with those he had offended. But can an apology adequately redress a PR blunder in this day and age? Can an apology make it all better?
“Yes” says Jeff Chertack, Regional Director, Corporate and Public Affairs, Memac Ogilvy PR MENA
“Anyone who’s ever apologised to a spouse by saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way” knows the reaction with which a misdirected apology can be greeted”
We’ve all had it instilled in us from an early age that when you do something wrong you should say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it. Somewhere between the playground and the boardroom, this ingrained instinct to own up and accept responsibility for mistakes often goes unheeded. Too often intervening factors, such as legal concerns, misplaced certitude, or, most often, an underestimation of the power of a disconcerted public, win out over an apology. The recent example of Barilla Chairman Guido Barilla shows however, that it’s not just an apology that matters; it’s when you say it and what you say. But if done correctly, and in the right circumstances, an apology can go a long way to setting the course for reputation recovery with customers or consumers.
Today’s consumers, investors and other stakeholders have come to expect more from companies and the executives who run them. An apology is only as good as its perceived authenticity. Anyone who’s ever apologised to a spouse by saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way” knows the reaction with which a misdirected apology can be greeted.
A sincere and humble apology, on the other hand, can be effective in diffusing a crisis. This is especially true in a case where there is responsibility to be taken in an operational issue. An apology that accepts accountability, and is delivered with humility and a pledge for action can actually improve the reputation of a company.
Barilla could have managed the situation more effectively had a humble apology come swiftly, and not seemingly in response to calls for boycotts and social media outrage drummed up by the LGBT community and equal rights advocates in Italy and around the world. In this particular case, the Chairman can’t apologise for his belief system, but should apologise for letting it impact his comments about his customers. Inviting your customers to stop using your product is a third rail of business, no matter the circumstance.
An apology doesn’t require a weepy admission of responsibility on an overstuffed couch during a nationally televised interview. Thanks to social media, executives have more opportunities than ever to get their message out, unfiltered and to the public. YouTube and social media, the very channels that are keeping executives on their toes, can also be the channels by which apologies are made and disseminated.
Of course, steering clear of hot-button political and social issues is the better way to avoid such scandals in the first place. Clear messaging and tough media training can decrease the foot-in-mouth impulse that makes an apology necessary.
In short, executives would do well to remember their parents’ advice, and either apologise when they make a mistake or just not open their their mouths in the first place.
Contact Jeff Chertack at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @JTack
“No” says Jonathan Macpherson, Senior Consultant and Regional Director of India, Middle East, Africa and Turkey, Hill & Knowlton Strategies
“The public has become cynical. It has seen too many blunders and too many empty apologies for a simple ‘sorry’ to suffice”
Before the advent of a more connected world, when brands used to be less global and social media didn’t exist, Guido Barilla’s comments would perhaps have been limited to Italian media, thus narrowing the audience, and diminishing the scope of offense to his views. Back then, the issue could have blown over with a few letters sent to editors.
Today, that’s not the case. The world is too well connected. The public has become cynical. It has seen too many blunders and too many empty apologies for a simple ‘sorry’ to suffice. Large international brands are falling foul of the power of the public and digital democratisation. They are failing to recognise that the world is a different place than it was before globalisation and widespread Internet access, and that personal views played out in the public arena can cause irreparable damage to brands. They are also failing to learn from others’ mistakes. One of the most famous cases of verbal recklessness actually coined a phrase for CEO gaffes, ‘doing a Ratner’.
Gerald Ratner, formerly Chief Executive of the major British jewellery company Ratners Group, achieved notoriety after making a speech in which he jokingly denigrated the company’s products, causing the brand’s near collapse in 1991. Addressing members of the Institute of Directors in London, he said, “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap.”
That one speech wiped £500 million from Ratners’ market value and no amount of apologising made a difference to consumers, who felt let down, even if it was meant as a joke.
Brands and their spokespeople should understand that there are some topics that they should avoid, and that good planning and corporate governance should provide the framework to ensure they know what to say, when to say it and who is able to say it. This doesn’t mean brands will be impervious to gaffes but it should enable them to minimise the risk and prepare well for any eventuality.
Many companies make the mistake of avoiding the issue once they have made an apology and subsequent changes, because they prefer not to have the topic raised again. However, publicly reporting substantiated facts about changes that have been made so far will ensure that consumers really believe that the company has been honest, was sincere in its apology, and has changed its behaviour accordingly.
Will a video apology persuade Guido Barilla’s critics that all is well in the pasta world? I doubt it; there is probably a great deal more that Barilla will need to do to assuage the publics’ ire. You could say that, so far, the handling of the affair is a little undercooked rather than al dente.
Contact Jonathan Macpherson at email@example.com