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The high-wire act of corporate apologies

Posted by elisabethneary on October 31, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Today's news that Apple's iOS, Scott Forstall, has resigned has been paired with statements that his departure was the result of his refusal to apologize for the iPhone Maps debacle.  It's just the latest chapter in the saga that saw Tim Cook issue a formal apology on Apple's website in late September to address the furor surrounding the beleaguered app.  Cook's hope, presumably, was that a direct and contrite statement would curtail the online feeding frenzy about MAPS' embarrassing failures. 


Today's opinions in the blogosphere appear to be divided between two camps.  

 

  • Camp #1 is of the opinion that Forstall should be applauded for his courage ---even if it meant losing his job----to stand up and state that he was not the only father of this high-profile failure. Many point to Tim Cook's pressure to hit an unreasonable release date as being the reason MAPS went out before it was fully baked. Standing by principles and not being willing to being "thrown under the bus" silently is being seen as bravery.  

  • Camp #2 views Forstall's refusal to apologize for the project, of which he was in charge, as being just another example of Apple's extreme arrogance.  To apologize, and publicly acknowledge what everyone already knows to be true (i.e. that the app felt short of expectations) would appear to be a relatively simple act.  To show humility and contrition would have been construed as its own sort of mature bravery and corporate accountability that the public has come to expect.  To refuse seems unbefitting of a corporate leader.

To be sure, there are some great examples of corporate apologies.  The good ones can be the salve needed to heal wounds in the brand.  The bad ones, that are handled inelegantly or without sufficient humility, can backfire.  Who does the apology, the words they use (and don't use) and the tone all combine to either help or hurt the brand---and the effects can be far-reaching.

Take Toyota who, in 2009, was facing an enormously embarrassing recall of 3.8 million vehicles.  For a company synonymous with quality and reliability, damage control was critical.  Toyota's president's earnest, direct, and strong apology went a long way to assure customers this was simply a bump in the road, and that Toyota would do whatever it takes to earn back lost trust.  A WIN.

Then there was Netflix, who after being an online success story and darling for years, made a series of missteps around pricing and spin-offs.  Customers revolted and a million of them jumped ship before Netflix addressed its blunder.  Their apology seemed too little, too late; Netflix has not fully rebounded.  Had the apology been done sooner, and better, the results may not have been so severe.  A LOSS.

And then the famous case of Tony Hayward and the 2010 BP Oil Spill.  The seemingly never-ending catastrophe required complete perfection in messaging, tone and tenor----and Hayward tripped.  His on-camera demeanor was seen as arrogant, out of touch, and insensitive, which only fueled the fire (pun intended) of BP's PR nightmare.  A LOSS. 

Lesson:  If a mistake is made, and it's deemed appropriate to publicly apologize, the execution of the apology must be pitch-perfect. Anything less does nothing to help, and can even compound the damage to the brand. 


 

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