Thursday, October 27, 2011


The Winnipeg Free Press has been reporting this week on a "ground-breaking" event that happened today in Halifax, at the third of seven national Truth and Reconciliation Commission events: University of Manitoba President David Barnard apologized for his university's role in educating perpetrators of the abuse aboriginal children, families and communities suffered under the Indian Residential School System.

Photo and caption from the
University of Manitoba website
Barnard's full statement is published on the university's website, here.

The apology follows others from churches and governments, including an apology on behalf of the federal government from Prime Minister Stephen Harper; but this is the first time a university has stood up and apologized for the indirect role it played. As it is explained in a story in this morning's National Post, "The university itself was not a perpetrator of the tragedy, and its mea culpa stems from having educated the clergy, teachers, and politicians who perpetuated the system."

An apology, or an attempt to profit from the suffering of others?

The National Post story, entitled "University's residential school apology raises eyebrows," questions whether the U of M's apology will be taken in the spirit in which it's meant. In it, Michael Davis, of Vancouver reputation management firm Reputations, suggests the university might be seen to be taking advantage of the tragedy for a gain in its public image.

The National Post story quotes Mr. Davis as saying the university’s connection to the residential school system “seems very tenuous,” and that by making an apology "the school runs the risk of appearing to 'use what was a very serious and tragic history for some sort of gain'.” 

In a separate story in the Winnipeg Free Press this morning, however, Truth and Reconciliation Commission member Marie Wilson says the apology "will be tremendously encouraging to survivors."

How can you know whether your apology will help or hurt?

When an organization has acted badly or in some way hurt people, an apology is the first step in repairing damaged relationships.

When the organization's role in hurting people is indirect, as Mr. Davis points out in the National Post story, there's the potential for motivations to be judged (and possibly, misjudged). 

Regardless of how pure the organization's motives, it's important to do research that will help predict whether audiences are likely to take it in the way it's meant... because, PR issues aside, your objective is not to have your apology inflict further disrespect to a group that's already suffering.

Mr. Barnard provided some background on how the university decided to make the apology, noting in a Winnipeg Free Press story that he "consulted widely on campus among deans, senior administrators, the board of governors and the senate. He has also discussed the university’s plan with Manitoba aboriginal leaders." 

That's good PR.

If you can't know, ask.

You can't ever predict with perfect accuracy how people will react to something; but asking a wide range of opinions from within your stakeholder publics will always help. While there will invariably be people "out there" who will disagree with your actions or question your motives, what matters most is how most of your audiences will view them. 

Statements like Mr. Davis' illustrate the risk in taking a public stand. But if the U of M has done its homework and knows its own audiences will see the apology as the sincere gesture it's meant to be, the apology will (hopefully) be able to help its community take a step toward healing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

RIM: how long should a response wait?

There have been plenty of articles and blog posts blasting Research in Motion (RIM)'s decision to wait before talking to its customers (and investors, and the watching world) about the major outage its BlackBerry service experienced last week. An October 12th article in PR News summed up what many were saying with a quote from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former head of communications:
 "Explain while you fix. Apologize when you have. Recompense after. Handling so far woeful," he tweeted. 
If you Google "BlackBerry crisis communications" you'll have a wide choice of links, many of which pointing out how RIM ignored one of the basic principles of crisis communications: talk to your audiences and stakeholders and give them the facts (or whatever facts you can) before others shape the story for you.

It sounds easier than it is.

Having spent more than a decade in a telecom corporate communications department, I have to say I had some sympathy for the folks at RIM. It's easy for us to sit back and say "you should be out there telling your customers what's going on," but sometimes it's not that simple. Sometimes, even the experts aren't exactly sure what the problem is - and no-one wants to go out and make it sound better or worse than it actually is. I remember getting briefed on network outages that initially looked like they were going to take hours to fix, but were actually repaired in minutes. Hindsight is 20/20, and your in-the-thick-of-it statements will live on long after the crisis does; natural instinct is to want to be sure you have it right before you say anything at all.

There's also the problem of explaining what the issue is when the audience can't possibly understand it. The communicator needs to be accurate, but can't use the technical language the engineers use: our customers aren't engineers. That translation process takes time, too (and, often, debate).

The communicators have their hands full: even if the higher-ups are on board with the idea that the company should communicate publicly about the problem (and this isn't a given in every company), they have to find out what the issue is; get agreement from all the experts on what the problem is, its scope, and what will be required to fix it; and translate it all into their audiences' language. It's not something you can do within a few minutes.

But it is something that needs to be done, and as quickly as possible -- because as the RIM example shows, the story will build with or without you.

A quote that caught my eye

A story in The Globe and Mail Monday about the RIM issue attributed the following statement to RIM co-CEO, Jim Balsillie:
Mr. Balsillie defended how RIM communicated the outage to the public, saying every minute doing public relation is time not spent fixing the problem.
Unless its communicators do double-duty as engineers, I think RIM could likely have communicated without jeopardizing the repair time by too much. The communicators would need access a tech expert to formulate and help with "translating" the message, but any time lost by techies would, I'd argue, be well-invested in showing your customers you're working to fix it.

Customers don't really expect everything to work perfectly all the time, though it may sound like they do when they're complaining online. But they do expect the company to show that it "gets" their frustration and is doing everything it can to fix it. 

On Thursday, RIM uploaded a video to YouTube featuring Mr. Balsillie's co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis, talking to its customers about the outage.

A message like this one (which still doesn't tell us much about the nature of the problem) could have taken down the temperature on the criticism of RIM, had it come out a few days earlier. 

Every crisis is also an opportunity

Your audiences are listening... you might as well say something you want them to hear.