In Crisis Management, Public Relations, Reputation

iStock_000008036968Small“I’m sorry.”

If that were enough to smooth your way out of a corporate crisis, Paula Deen would still be on the Food Network;  Chip Wilson would still be heading up Lululemon and Lance Armstrong would still be rolling in sponsorship dollars.  But they’re not.  And the reason is that merely mouthing the words “I’m sorry” versus meaning them

It’s not about saying it.  It’s about meaning it.

Consider the case of GM CEO Mary Barra, who stepped to the helm just before one of the worst crises in the company’s history.  In a previous blog post, I roasted her because I didn’t hear anything that resembled an apology from her.  Not anymore.  Now that she’s settled into the job, I believe her personal ethics have taken over.  And that she’s willing to put them on display to make things right.

First, a little history: GM’s ongoing public pillorying is rightly due to their years of churning out cars with faulty ignition switches.  They’ve lived through multiple rounds of congressional testimony, a massive internal report detailing how badly they messed up, the specter of needing to establish a compensation fund of between $400 million and $600 million and a massive fine from the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And (as they say on QVC) “…But wait there’s more.”  Those in the know expect the Department of Justice to file criminal charges or levy massive fines.  GM  has already admitted that its mistakes led directly to the deaths of at least 13 people, and there could be more on the way.

And yet, CEO Barra has actually maintained her credibility and humanity through it all.  Why?  Because she honestly seems contrite, in search of a change to the corporate culture and without hubris.  This led to uncharacteristic praise during her congressional testimony last month which included a comment from a most unexpected source, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California): “God bless you, and you’re doing a good job.”

What are the lessons here?

  • Authenticity counts – Your apology has to be honestly contrite, as Barra’s demonstrates.  It can’t be faked.  Ask Paula Deen, whose reference to the biblical concept of “throwing the first stone” made many want to do just that to her.
  • Language counts – What you say should be simple, direct and showcase your understanding of your audience.  Ask former BP exec Tony Hayward, whose need to “get my life back” generated visions of polo ponies instead oil spill cleanups.
  • Body language counts – Make sure your body demonstrates what your words articulate.  Lance Armstrong’s casual slouch during his “apology” to Oprah Winfree and his “Still chillin’” twit pix lounging under his framed yellow jerseys did nothing to redeem him.
  • Meaningful follow-through counts – What you pledge to do and what you deliver needs to demonstrate a real understanding of those affected.  Target’s one weekend of credit checks after one of the worst data breaches in history was such an empty gesture.  And Chevron’s offer of free pizza to the residents of Bobtown, PA – after one of its oil wells exploded and killed a worker- got them nothing more than a spot on the Daily Show.  It featured a Chevron corporate exec facing a panel of angry residents while he crooned “Everyone calm down.  You look hungry.  Pizza!”

In the end, it comes down to one thing only – a real apology must sound and look heartfelt.  It has to be meaningful to those affected and demonstrate a real urgency to change.  Most folks are more than willing to give a company or an individual a second chance as long as that chance starts with real contrition and is followed up with meaningful action.

Let’s see if  Barra and GM can pull that off.



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