Saying ‘sorry’ can cut both ways

Mea culpas can be helpful or off-putting

Depending on the circumstances and perceived sincerity, apologies can help solve a reputation problem or exacerbate it. Reputation management specialists hold a variety of views about if, when and how to apologize.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the latest bigwig to apologize for his company’s actions. Whether or not he ultimately will be “forgiven” remains in doubt, at least among tech execs and members of Congress. A recent Washington Post story weighs in on his string of apologies, noting, “Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized — again — this week in remarks on Capitol Hill during hearings about data privacy. ‘We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,’ Zuckerberg said. But several lawmakers didn’t hesitate to remind Zuckerberg they’d heard it all before. On Wednesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told the 33-year-old founder, listing off a series of apologies he’d made stretching back to 2003…Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)…said ‘we’ve seen the apology tours before.’ Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) pointed to Zuckerberg’s history of making apologies and asked, ‘after a decade of promises to do better, how is today’s apology different?’”

In the case of Zuckerberg, clearly his credibility is suffering. His continuing apologies are fueling the fires of discontent and outrage, not forgiveness.

Then, there’s the 2010 story of Domino’s dough rising again. A Washington Post article reports, “For sheer corporate candor, it’s tough to beat Domino’s latest delivery. In its new TV commercial and Web video, the pizza chain admits something startling — namely, that its pizza is pretty terrible…Domino’s very public admission of its own awfulness might represent the most elaborate mea culpa ad in history. But it’s hardly the first. Companies sometimes admit their flaws and faults in a bid for public empathy. The strategy usually has two parts. Part one: Fess up. Part two: Vow to do better.”

Zacks.com just reported that, “Domino’s Pizza, Inc….is riding high on robust international growth, consistent focus on innovation, execution of growth strategy and digital initiatives. Consequently, the stock has rallied 15.2% in the past six months…”

Two companies got in trouble for different reasons. Domino’s walked what they talked; and both reputation and revenues have risen. At this point, Zuckerberg is gaining a reputation for a lot of talk with little constructive action; and is losing reputation points along the way.

Different views, different skews

According to the Post, “He [Patrick Doyle, Domino’s chief executive] adds, ‘We think that going out there and being this honest really breaks through to people in a way that most advertising does not.’…Acknowledging that you’ve messed up may win some goodwill among consumers, but marketing experts say it also carries some risks… ‘Some people are going to hear only part of the message” — Domino’s stinks — “and not hear the part about how they’re going to get better,” says Bill Benoit, a communications professor at Ohio University. Thus, apology ads can reinforce negative perceptions and raise awareness of them among people who’ve never tried, or even heard of, the product.

“But Benoit, the author of ‘Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies,’ a book about how corporations and individuals restore their reputations, generally applauds the Domino’s approach. ‘People do not like to admit they’re wrong, but they do like to hear other people admit it,’ he says. ‘When someone does fess up, people tend to respect you for having the courage to admit it.’”

Too complex for a lot of generalities

Certainly, issuing apologies as part of a communications strategies deserves careful consideration tailored to the specific circumstances at hand. However, there are a few policies that can stand you in good stead no matter what happens:

  1. Adopt a consistent truthtelling protocol across all corporate communications. Remember, social media is the ultimate lie detector. Companies that lie or appear incomplete/insincere in their mea culpas are more vulnerable to detection than ever before. A consistent and complete lack of candor in the White House has reduced its “cumulative credibility” to pitiful levels. Between the incomplete declarations and now-predictable prevarication, it’s difficult to believe anything coming out of the Oval Office;
  2. Tell the truth as completely as the individual situation and timing will allow. Initial comments may or may not warrant an apology. It’s better to weigh the issues rationally than wade in to satisfy the “instant gratification” crowd;
  3. When issuing an apology, make it sincere and tied to actionable steps as appropriate. Don’t make hollow apologies as a way to gain public sympathy. Ultimately, it likely will come back to bite you in the butt a la Zuckerberg.

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Mark Lusky, President, Mark Lusky Communications (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience. READ BIO

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