Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'm sorry

I ran across a couple of stories online this week that got me thinking about apologies. Not the kind of apologies we share with one another every day, for accidentally bumping into someone or forgetting to return a call, but the kind that are called for when we’ve really messed up.

I’ve blogged before about how important it is for people/companies who’ve done wrong to come out right away and admit to their mistakes – and our old friend Tiger has been doing a fair job of driving (har, har!) that lesson home in recent weeks. But to come out and admit you’ve done something wrong isn’t always enough; especially when someone has been hurt by your mistake, you also need to apologize.

Head over to YouTube and you’ll find apologies galore: from R&B stars alleged to have abused their girlfriends, to media outlets caught misleading their audiences, to governments, trying to acknowledge and atone for the sins of their predecessors. And while we’re on the topic of big-ticket apologies (and sins), we have to mention the Catholic Church’s 1992 apology to astronomer Galileo, for having condemned him for his blasphemy that the Earth revolved around the sun; it may have been 359 years too late, but at least it finally came.

Would you hire a PR guy to defend you in court?

In his public apology for his treatment of girlfriend Rihanna, Chris Brown said he had wanted to apologize sooner, but had been advised against it by his lawyer. In the eyes of the law, an apology can been seen as an admission of guilt; and so lawyers, whose job it is to keep us out of jail, will often advise silence in the face of our own wrongdoing.

Sometimes, it's sad to say, that may be the best way to go; unless you’re willing to go to jail for your transgression, you might be better-served by remaining silent, and taking the scorn of the world (or your own audiences, at least) in exchange for your freedom.

But there are times when lawyers’ advice to remain silent can cost their client more than the settlement they’ll eventually be ordered to pay. Think of it this way: if your apology engenders customer goodwill, the business you’ll be able to continue doing after the crisis could be worth far more than a few million paid in damages and settlements. If your refusal to apologize costs you all your customers, you may save a few million in damages, but your business won't last long.

Now, that may sound cold and calculating, but the fact is that companies (especially publicly-traded ones) have to do what's best for their owners' investment. It just so happens that when it comes to apologies, oftentimes what's morally right and what's "right for the business" are one and the same.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail during its listeriosis crisis in 2008, Maple Leaf Foods’ CEO Michael McCain said “Going through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants.” McCain, as PR and business opinion leaders have attested ever since, handled his company’s response to the crisis almost flawlessly; the approach was anchored by a timely, public, multi-media apology.

As a result of its quick, sincere and customer-focused response (involving far more than the apology, it must be said), Maple Leaf's customer confidence ratings rebounded quickly – a fact which I'm sure relieved its lawyers and accountants.

People can forgive imperfection. They’re less able to forgive arrogance.

If you have anyone in your life who refuses to apologize, even when they clearly know they’re in the wrong, you know it’s infuriating. And it’s no different in a relationship between a client and a business than between two people. If you do something wrong, you need to acknowledge that it was wrong, and apologize for having hurt whomever you hurt. It might’nt fix the problem, but it can help.

There’s a great example of exactly this on Steve Farnsworth’s Digital Marketing Mercenary blog this week: “ The Anatomy of a Social Media Nightmare Averted – Case Study.” It’s a great read, and shows exactly how an apology can get you back on the road to a healthy relationship.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

They're not going to run out of angles...

I've been good about restraining myself on the whole Tiger Woods debacle; frankly, over the last couple of weeks, you could have been blogging day and night on the PR aspects alone, as new allegation followed new revelation over and over again.

There have been thousands of voices by now, I'm sure, singing the same tune: Tiger Woods should have just admitted to whatever he had to admit to, so there'd be nothing left for the media to discover, and then gone away and hid for a while until some other celebrity did something shocking and/or stupid to distract us.

More angles

But Tiger didn't listen, and two weeks later, we're still hearing about it. Every day or two there has been another addition to what is now a "string" of alleged mistresses; in the absence of Tiger's own statement, those women become a focus for the media, who can't resist the opportunity to keep feeding the public appetite for this scandal.

So, we hear about who's claiming an affair with him and who's not. We hear analysis of the state of the Woods' marriage and children. We hear conjecture about children conceived as a result of Woods' affairs. We hear about who reportedly hired which powerful celebrity attorney. We hear about mistresses' claims of having taken drugs while with him.

As they say, the media abhors a vacuum: if the story has the public's interest and you refuse to talk, they'll fill in the blanks. Not responding doesn't mean there won't be any stories -- it just means there won't be any stories reflecting your position.

And now, a new angle. Oh, Tiger.

I caught the national Headline News version of this story on TV this morning, which is what prompted me to write this post.

We've now moved past the salacious affair details (even if only until the next mistress is revealed), the marriage breakup conjecture (even if only until his wife is spotted meeting with an attorney), and the corporate sponsors' positions (they can say they're sticking with him all they want, but just watch: eventually, money has to talk...), and we've now moved on to:

Tiger Woods' affairs have prevented little children from going to Disney World.

Yes, you read that right.

This story won't be going away any time soon... unless Tiger does something about it. And even then, it's become so huge that it'll take some time.

Here's a good article on what Tiger should consider doing from here, from; thanks to Jarrett Moffatt for pointing it out to me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Media training? Nah, I'll just wing it."

As most PR people, most broadcast journalists, and all our students in Creative Communications know, it takes hard work to look natural in front of a camera (for most people, at least).

On camera, every little tic appears exaggerated. Every hesitation or stumble seems amplified. A frustrated or embarrassed facial expression can overtake any message you're imparting verbally.

And yet... PR people debate with their clients and executives every day, in offices around the world, about the need to practice before going on camera for a media interview. Executives tend to be confident people; but even the greatest of confidence isn't a substitute for some basic techniques that can help you come across well on camera.

"I'll just go on and be myself."

Here is an example of a fellow who may well have felt he could just go on camera, be himself, and win over FOX News viewers. I'd be willing to bet that Jon Christensen, founder of, uses services like Skype to have videoconference-style conversations online all the time -- and figured that doing an on-camera interview would feel much the same. (His interview begins around the 0:48 mark.)

If that was the case, I'd also be willing to bet he feels differently now.

Practice makes... better

Being on camera can be terrifying the first time. Even if you feel confident, and you know your material like the back of your hand, something can happen when that light goes on that can strike you dumb on the spot.

Professional media training, delivered by a media relations expert, can help. It helps you understand the media's needs so you can better-prepare your messages, making them more likely to be used; it can also help you get more comfortable -- and be more effective -- delivering those messages on camera.

But even if there isn't time to bring in expert training, practice makes better. Have a colleague do mock interviews with you, so you can practice your responses. If you can, use a video camera or even the webcam built into your computer to look at your own body language, so you can identify anything you need to change before you -- and, potentially, millions of others -- see it on the news.

Thanks Dustin for the tip!