As we approach the end of 2017, one of the lasting images of this year remains a passenger being violently dragged down the aisle of an overbooked United Airlines flight in April. Then, adding insult to injury, the airline managed to make it exponentially worse by not swiftly saying one, simple word:
United wasn't the only company to demonstrate a problem with the "S" word. In fact, 2017 was another train wreck of bad behavior by corporations, media organizations, politicians and celebrities. What continues to be mind-boggling is that so many lack the mastered art of offering a sincere apology to mitigate damage.
Companies won't say "we're sorry" until after exhausting a litany of excuses, justifications and deflections. Only when they've been publicly shamed and their credibility is left in tatters do they belatedly express remorse. By then it's often too little, too late.
Honest mistakes, poor behavior and ad campaigns that backfire (looking at you, Pepsi) are inevitable. But the cost is so much higher at a time when the smartphone has made everyone a roving journalist with instant access to the public via social media. Missteps can go viral in a heartbeat, making it harder to control the story.
What companies can control, however, is how they respond.
A crisis doesn't mean failure. It's not about PR. It's about doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. By addressing a situation in a way that is straightforward, honest and authentically trying to make amends, companies can show integrity and demonstrate their corporate values. Here's how:
Just say you're sorry.
Be unequivocal, sincere, truthful and clear. We screwed up. We were wrong. We will do everything within our power to correct this. An apology that sounds like it was orchestrated by a legal team is worse than no apology at all. When United's initial responses were exactly that, crisis management specialist Lanny Davis called it a "textbook case of how to do everything wrong" in an interview with CNN.
"You say, 'I'm sorry. We will fix the problem. And here are the facts,'" Davis added.
Face the cameras.
Taking responsibility is the most important thing a leader can do. People want to see the CEO directly answering questions in a way that is as close to face to face as possible. It carries real weight when the person in charge delivers the apology, not the VP of external communications.
News spreads globally at the speed of 280-character tweets. Companies must react faster than ever before. Even if you don't have all the answers, you can still make it clear that you're taking the situation seriously. This can prevent escalating anger.
Earlier this year, Pepsi unveiled a tone-deaf ad featuring celebrity Kendall Jenner joining a protest and suggesting that a can of soda could solve the world's problems. What it really did was trivialize legitimate protest movements like Black Lives Matter. Now, to be clear, there were serious problems with Pepsi's response. But to the company's credit, it did pull the ad in less than a day.
It's not about you.
Own the mistake and don't get defensive. Here's where Pepsi stumbled. While admitting that the ad clearly missed the mark, Pepsi tried to justify the campaign, saying it was intended to "project a global message of unity, peace and understanding." It also apologized for putting Jenner in a bad light. But it should have been a clear mea culpa about the offensive nature of the ad, not about Pepsi's intentions or the celebrity.