By Nick LaPlaca, Assistant Account Executive, R&J Public Relations
As is my normal routine when I arrive at my workstation every morning, I sit down with a fresh brewed cup of coffee, decline several prompts to update my computer’s software and patiently wait for my emails to load while perusing the day’s national headlines. My career in public relations requires me to be cognizant of as much of the goings-on of the world that I can stomach and more often than not, I find it difficult to. On the very morning that I write this blog, the homepage of USA Today has no less than four headlines with official apologies to the United States of whoever cares on behalf of the recently penitent. Now this is not so much of a social commentary as it is a weary plea from a public relations professional who is tired of wasting his morning trying to remember who is apologizing for what.
To give you some context on the recently humbled, we have Tom Ford, mayor of Toronto, Canada who smoked crack on camera and apologized by saying that he was so blacked-out drunk he couldn’t remember. If anyone has ever tried giving this excuse to a significant other, they know that this approach simply does not work.
Next we have President Barack Obama, who is apologizing to the millions of American citizens whom he told numerous times would not have to sacrifice their current healthcare plans with the impending Affordable Care Act as well as an apology for the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov.
We also have Time magazine who dubbed New Jersey governor Chris Christie the elephant in the room. We have the Miami Dolphins “bullying” debacle with Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, CBS apologizing for falsely reporting on the Benghazi attack, and Home Depot releasing an apology over a racist tweet. All of this comes after a Halloween season of deplorable celebrity costumes accompanied by official apologies and the ever so popular “It was never my intention to offend…”
As a citizen of humanity I tend to forgive and forget when it comes to poor judgment and indiscretion, however as a public relations professional I will judge you on your apology — and make no mistake, all apologies are not created equal. So please consider taking the following advice into account before your brand sets off a national furor and you are forced to issue the same, lame apology you copied and pasted from whoever sat in the hot seat before you.
- Don’t offend anyone. I know that this sounds overly simplistic, but as a brand you should be taking great measures to refrain from making political statements and cultural statements. And make sure to review any official messages that are being distributed for potential ambiguity that can be deemed offensive. If you have any questions about whether or not something is offensive, let me assure you, it is.
- Social media is an official message. If you are in the business of allowing interns and young professionals right out of college to make official statements on your brand, you are playing with fire. I contend that there should be someone who understands the implications that one poorly-received tweet can have for your entire company reviewing any and all social media posts before they go live.
- There is no such thing as off the record. This is a conversation that we have with all of our clients and it is probably the most important thing for them to understand. There is no “off the record” and the walls have ears. If you do not want it published, don’t say it. I am reminded of the incident where former NSA director Tom Hayden’s conversation was live tweeted from a former Huffington Post reporter sitting in front of him on the Acela.
- Do not promise what you can not deliver. We have all made the mistake of promising something that we could not deliver or commenting on something we did not fully understand. Learn from your mistakes and never let it happen again.
- Do not lose your temper. As a business owner or senior partner most of your waking hours are spent thinking about your product and your brand. When things are misinterpreted or poorly received it can be incredibly disheartening. Remove your ego from the equation and do not respond to criticism, no matter how harsh, with the type of statement that you will later regret. The best statement that you can make is “We have heard your concerns and we are constantly striving toward making (insert brand here) better by addressing our customer’s critiques.”
- Do not release a half-hearted apology. This is my final lesson. There is nothing that insults people more than a disingenuous apology. It is incredibly important for the future of your brand to own up to any mistake that you have made and to sincerely request the forgiveness of anyone who you may have offended or alienated. If you do not know why the public is upset with your brand or how to fix it, it may be a good time to consult a public relations agency.
Please consider taking the necessary precautions to ensure that your brand is not facing the type of criticism that could damage your company’s reputation. If, however, you find yourself in a position where an apology is needed, try not to take a page from Lululemon CEO Chip Wilson’s playbook by blaming the recall of his company’s yoga pants on the large thighs of the women who buy them.