Saturday, 14 April 2012

Apology Accepted, Captain Needa

When public opinion strikes back
In one of the most darkly humourous scenes in the film The Empire Strikes Back, the ill-fated Captain Needa, the commander of the imperial warship in hot pursuit of Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon, loses track of his quarry (which is in fact clinging to the side of Needa's own ship) and is forced to apologize to Darth Vader for his screw-up. Moments later, the captain is lying dead from telekinetic asphyxiation, whereupon the Sith Lord dryly quips, "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

While this scene tells us a lot about the HR dynamics of the Galactic Empire, what you don't see in this scene is what Captain Needa's apology actually entailed. While Vader's response clearly indicates that he wasn't impressed by his subordinate's attempt at contrition, it would be interesting to know what the captain actually said. Did he explain the situation in adequate detail? Did he try to deflect blame on his own subordinates or his equipment, or say something like "Boba Fett made me do it"? Furthermore, we know nothing about Captain Needa's prior reputation, whether this was his first such screw-up or if this was a pattern for this guy. Given Vader's reaction, it's likely that the latter was the case, but with the empire dead and buried and Darth Vader long gone, we'll never know for sure.

The art of the well-crafted apology is an essential component of public relations, and of crisis communications in particular. It is often said that that in the corporate world, PR professional and lawyers exist on opposite ends of the communications spectrum. At the heart of bipolarity is the contrast between the court of law, wherein the accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty, and the court of public opinion, wherein an accused person (or organization) is generally guilty until proven innocent - and even then not necessarily safe from reputational damage.

At the onset of a crisis, the first order of business for a crisis communicator is to tell the truth and tell it fast, even when it hurts - in fact especially when it hurts. The crisis communicator is accutely aware that not being forthcoming with information is not only delaying the inevitable, but also results in a loss of control. This is especially true when the crisis at hand really is your fault. If you don't tell your own bad news, you can be sure somebody else will - and it's pretty much guaranteed it'll sound a hell of a lot worse coming out of their mouths than your own.

Once you've done your homework and come to the conclusion that you or your organization are clearly to blame for a crisis, then what?  While the obvious answer is apologize, it is worth bearing in mind that not all apologies are created equal. A well thought out apology is far more likely to be well received than a poorly executed one. When formulating an official apology, it's worth considering that virtually all news media inquiries boil down to a set of nine basic questions that everybody wants to know about a crisis situation. As such, to make your apology count, it needs to answer the following:

  • What happened?
  • How/why did it happen?
  • Were there any deaths or injuries?
  • What is the extent of the damage?
  • Who or what is responsible?
  • Were there any warning signs?
  • Has it happened before?
  • When will the crisis be over?
  • What is being done to fix the situation and ensure that it doesn't happen again?

A textbook apology is the one made by Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain following the listeriosis outbreak in 2008, an outbreak linked to Maple Leaf's meat products. It was a serious crisis, which resulted in 57 confirmed cases of listeriosis and 22 deaths in various Canadian provinces. In sum, it was a crisis that could easily have resulted in a total business disaster for one of Canada's largest food processing companies. However, the CEO's now-legendary apology, which in addition to being broadcast on TV also made the rounds on YouTube, did much to save the company. See for yourself.

Consider again that list of questions. McCain touches on every single one of them, either directly or indirectly. What happened? A listeriosis outbreak. How did it happen? A failure at a Maple Leaf plant. Were there deaths or injuries? Yes. Who is responsible? The company. Were there any warning signs? No, or at least that's the implication. Has it happened before? Again, it's implied that it hasn't given his remark that this is "the toughest situation we've faced in 100 years." When will it be over? The products have already been pulled off the shelves nationwide and the plant where it came from has been shut down.

Add to that the fact that the CEO personally apologized, immediately offered his condolences to the victims, kept the emphasis of the message on the affected party (the customers). It also helped matters that he was dressed appropriately for it - smartly but casually and without a tie - and that he frankly comes off as a sincere and thoughtful guy. Moreover, Maple Leaf followed this message with a similar TV spot a month or so later, in which the CEO appeared again, this time highlighting the changes that had been made by the company in their pledge to improve safety and regain consumer trust.

The result? Maple Leaf Foods recovered quite quickly from the disaster and remains one of Canada's leading food processing companies four years later. Unfortunately, not all companies spokespersons have shown such empathy and contriteness in their responses to crises for which blame clearly rested. Consider the statement drafted by J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of White Star Line, following the 1912 sinking of the company's flagship vessel, the HMS Titanic. Suffice it to say, the company's 'apology' left a lot to be desired.

A PR disaster of 'titanic' proportions
In the presence and under the shadow of a catastrophe so overwhelming, my feelings are too deep for expression in words. I can only say that the White Star Line, its offices and employees will do everything humanly possible to alleviate the suffering and sorrow of the survivors and of the relatives and friends of those who perished.

The Titanic was the last word in shipbuilding. Every regulation prescribed by the British Board of Trade had been strictly complied with, the masters, officers and crew were the most experienced and skillful in the British service.

I am informed that a committee of the United States had been appointed to investigate the circumstances of the accident. I heartily welcome the most complete and exhaustice inquiry and any aid that I or my associates or our builders or navigators can render is at the service of the public and the governments of both the United States and Great Britain. Under the circumstances, I must respectfully defer making any further statement at this time.

Reading this statement, it is worth bearing in mind that 1) it had already been established that the ship's striking of an iceberg in the North Atlantic was the result of errors made by crew employed by White Star; and 2) it was also clear that the ship had been woefully underequipped with lifeboats, resulting in the loss of life of roughly three quarters of the passengers and crew. Moreover, this non-apology answers virtually none of the above-listed questions. Even Ismay's attempt at empathy with the victims manages to come off as self-centred.

The result? Although Ismay was cleared of any wrongdoing by both British and US authorities, he was pilloried in the press and to this day is remembered as a villain (right up to his portrayal as a callous reptile by actor Jonathan Hyde in the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster). White Star Line became synonymous with bad management and never recovered. The company struggled on for two decades before it was swallowed up by its chief rival, Cunard Line. Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

The moral? If you're going to apologize - especially for something truly egregious, make it a good apology. Good apologies do actually save companies and organizations. Bad apologies send them to the ocean floor. Of course, even the best, most heartfelt apologies are no guarantee of foregiveness or that you won't be strangled to death by a telekinetic force choke. It's generally best not to screw up in the first place.

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