All apologies

Company apologies are never easy. From mea culpas to individual, disgruntled customers to worldwide “whoopsies!” for major blunders or scandals (hello, VW and BP!), the company apology is a treacherous road for brands to navigate. Done poorly, they can cause companies to come off as callous and indifferent – or, even worse, open them up to excessive liability and legal action. Done right, however, they can also be an opportunity.

We’ve been thinking about this more and more as the VW scandal in particular continues to expand. While that one is quickly reaching the level where no amount of apologizing will atone for the damage done, it’s the exception to the rule. For the vast majority of company miscues calling for an apology, an effective utilization of “our bad” can turn be a unique chance to humanize your brand – and, as a result, strengthen the connection your customers have with it.

So what makes for the right kind of “we were wrong?” Generality speaking, a successful apology will be based on these tenets:

  • Be honest. This should seem obvious, no? And yet, many are the examples where a crisis can’t be contained because the company wasn’t fully and completely forthright in its scope from the outset. (VW is a glaring example of this unfolding in real-time.) Damage can be contained more effectively if information doesn’t continue to drip out slowly at irregular intervals.
  • Be genuine. An apology should have just the right amount of emotional quality to it. It should be heartfelt and feel authentic.
  • Be brief. Internally, make sure you know everything about the issue at hand. Externally, be direct and to the point. You can be honest and transparent while only sharing the most relevant details of an issue.
  • Be positive. The best kind of apology puts the transgression in perspective while pivoting toward the positive features and benefits of a particular product or service.

The path to a proper company apology is full of potential potholes, to be sure. Handled thoughtfully and thoroughly, however, a company can make sure it’s not sorry it said sorry.


Where’s the beef?

1024px-Chipotle_Mexican_Grill_logo.svgChipotle is famous for two things:

  1. Making a mean burrito
  2. Being a nice company

These two things are strongly correlated, which can help explain the company’s rabid customer base and meteoric growth the past couple of years. In fact, most would argue Chipotle couldn’t be known for one without the other.

The restaurant chain recently had a unique and unexpected chance to determine if that was true. The result caught a lot of people by surprise – except for its customers.

Earlier this week, Chipotle announced that it was halting pork sales at roughly one-third of its U.S. restaurants after discovering violations of its pig-housing policies at a supplier. That equates to a lot of customers not being able to enjoy their beloved carnitas burritos which, in turn, could have a big impact on Chipotle’s sales for the quarter and the year, depending on how long the shortage runs. This, in turn, could equate to a lot of unhappy customers and a lot of lost sales for Chipotle.

With that in mind, it would have been relatively easy for the company to quietly reprimand the supplier and make it try its hardest to make things better, all while still using its pork to make those mean burritos. Who would have known, right?

Chipotle would have known, of course, and that was enough for them.They know that being a nice company is a big part of what helps them make a mean burrito – and what has made them such a beloved brand in the eyes of their customers. They counted the long-term cost of using a product that went against their brand philosophy and “Food With Integrity” approach and determined it would be way more costly than any short-term losses resulting from the shortage.

Brands talk a lot about their philosophy, their identity, their essence – the foundation that makes them who they are. And yet it’s still rare – and refreshing – to see examples of brands that practice what they preach. Chipotle has a keen understanding of who they are and how their customers view them, recognizing that their customers love them for more than just their killer burritos. Turning a blind eye to their core philosophy may have saved them some sales in the short term, but it would have made them just another fast food joint in the long run.


Roger Goodell, it seems, is having his Richard Nixon moment. The NFL commissioner’s week got off to a very bad start – and it’s only gotten worse from there. Over the past several days, public perception of the commissioner – and, as a result, the entire league – has gone from one of someone indifferent to domestic abuse and violence against women to someone either incompetent or knowingly lying to the public. Neither of these are particularly good, which is why the drumbeat of people calling for his resignation seems to grow by the hour.

While the story itself is by and large a sad and disturbing one for everyone involved, it does offer some timely reminders about the right and wrong ways to go about handling a crisis when it comes to communications. We can look at how to do it right by examining all the things the commish has done wrong to this point.

  • Be prepared. It’s not just for the Boy Scouts anymore. Perhaps the most glaring issue throughout the entire crisis this week has been how utterly unprepared the league has seemed to handle and address it. While any crisis and its particular circumstances are unique, having at least a basic, step-by-step plan for responding to it is a universal must for every organization. Many people think the NFL’s haphazard response stems in large part from the league’s widespread cultural popularity, which may have lulled executives into a false sense of security and infallibility. Which leads us to our second point..
  • Be humble. It’s rather clear from the very beginning of this situation all the way back in July that the NFL seriously misjudged the audience response. No one doubts the insane popularity of the league and the sport; conversely, the league never should have doubted the public’s ability to turn on it for a perceived misdeed of this magnitude, especially in this day and age, when social media enables outrage to spread much more quickly and widely. No matter how much your customers love you, always be humble enough to know it could change at any moment.
  • Be smart. Seriously. Don’t do dumb stuff, like lie or hide from public view as a crisis begins to unfold. It’s easier said than done in the heat of a moment and the trenches of a crisis response, but being smart, measured and appropriate in your response helps stop the crisis from spiraling further out of control.
  • Be honest. As Nixon showed us, the coverup is ALMOST ALWAYS worse than the crime. Now, to be fair, we’re not sure if Goodell is lying about not seeing the video, but it sure doesn’t look like he’s being truthful. And perception, especially in these situations, is reality. Better to be honest and upfront – even if it highlights your shortcomings or incompetence as a leader – than to be deceitful to protect your pride and your ego. We’re a forgiving country, and we love giving second chances. But not to liars.

If nothing else, use this week’s NFL fiasco as a reminder to make sure you’re prepared to handle a crisis. Like a fire extinguisher, you may not ever need to use it. But would you feel safe in your building without a fire extinguisher? The same goes for a crisis communications plan. As we always say, “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.”