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Posted on 07.01.2014

An Apology Goes a Long Way

GM CEO Atones for Company Recall, Communications Crisis

​ I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for a good apology. And I'm more likely to give a second chance when it seems genuine and sincere. So, as the driver of a GM car, I've watched with interest the GM recall crisis play out on Capitol Hill and in the media.

Of course, I'm slightly annoyed that I will have take time to go to the auto dealer to see if I'm sorry 4my vehicle is still safe to drive to work, church and weekend soccer tournaments. However, the bigger the question is, will the current issues at GM and the way the company has responded influence my next car purchase?

Corporate apologies as well as the individual mea culpa have become fairly commonplace. A New York Times article published in February described the "art of the apology" as, "Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are 'taking responsibility' and then end with, 'I hope to put this behind me.'" The article went on to say some feel apologies happen too frequently and called for an immediate end to the scourge.

I searched Google and found an overwhelming number of public apologies and requests for a second, third and sometimes fourth do-over. Target's CFO apologized for its cybersecurity breach; Gary Oldman acknowledged culturally insensitive remarks he made in a recent interview; and just this weekend, Facebook executives asked for a pardon in the court of public opinion after completing a secret experiment in 2012 that manipulated users' moods.

GM CEO Mary Barra is no exception. She testified before Congress, met privately with families who lost loved ones allegedly due to defective vehicles and most recently sat down for a multi-segment interview with The Today Show's Matt Lauer. In all these interactions, she has apologized for the company's transgressions and has vowed employees won't forget this sad chapter so it's never repeated. (When asked about theories that suggest the intelligent, charismatic car company executive and mother was named CEO to lessen the negative impact of the recall disclosure that was on the horizon, Barra scoffed at the notion. She quickly plowed ahead in the interview, fully committed to restoring GM's good name and reputation.)

I contend apologies should continue to be a mainstay and a vital component of a comprehensive crisis communications strategy. And despite what lawyers might say, leaders can apologize and express sympathy without it being construed as an omission of guilt. However there is an art to making amends.

  • Apologies should be focused and straightforward. The message should be clear and concise, helping to accomplish your overarching goal of atoning for the mistake. CEOs should resist the urge to provide too many details and make explanations, which could be misinterpreted as excuses.
  • Executives should express sympathy for those affected by the issue.
  • The organization's leader should discuss how the error occurred and what the company will do to prevent a similar error in the future, whether a procedure change, process improvement or cultural shift, making sure not to over-promise and under-deliver.
  • CEOs should acknowledge the organization's mission and values, even if the misstep isn't congruent, and commit to realigning the company and its employees with them.

As for me, I'll see how the GM issues play out over time before deciding on my loyalty to the GM brand. In the meantime, check out Rosemary Plorin's blog post "The '˜Sorry' Word Works" and Entertainment Weekly's chronicle of the 19 best apologies in the last 20 years.

What do you think about the current onslaught of the mea culpa? Has a corporate apology made you more or less brand loyal?  

 

Andrea Ewin Turner is a Senior Account Supervisor at Lovell Communications. You can view more of Andrea’s blogs here.  Connect with Andrea at Andrea@lovell.com  or @aewinturner​

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