When Apologies Backfire

What do architects and supermodels have in common?

Beyond being generally approved of by the general public, they were the first to experience reputation damage in the wake of a growing, global culture shift.

The day after the US presidential election, The American Institute of Architects released a statement expressing their willingness to work with the Trump Administration. For the AIA, it was business as usual – a statement that is always released after a presidential election.

The groundswell was immediate and vocal, leading to the launch of the #notmyaia digital movement with members voicing long-term concerns that the Institute had been tone deaf. The AIA released an apology two days later but it did little to stem the tide. Four days later, they followed up with a second video apology that fed the media storm further, and finally a third apology to their members that went public.

Several days later, supermodel Gigi Hadid hosted the American Music Awards. In her opening monologue, she mimicked the future First Lady, Melania Trump – the backlash was sudden and even more vocal, forcing herself and her mother to lock down social comments.

In reaction, the supermodel released a hand-written apology letter through her father’s Instagram account. The apology letter received more criticism as it failed to apologize directly to Mrs. Trump.

In both cases, the apologies created more problems than they solved, why? Here are three guidelines when considering whether to/to not apologize after a crisis you caused:

  • Is it warranted? This will take some hard thinking internally to determine whether your actions align with your mission or business philosophy. Is it a market over reaction? Will time be beneficial to you and your brand? Don’t immediately issue an apology until you have assessed the context completely.  Shoot from the hip apologies don’t work.

 

  • Is it sincere? If you are going to apologize, you must really want to and it must really show. This is where acting will fail you. Audiences are smart, people are smart, they will see right through the veneer which will further inflame the situation. Only apologize if you truly mean it and you are comfortable doing so.

 

  • Is it owned? Will your key audiences agree with your apology – the approach and the content? Have you checked in with them? This could be loyal customers, partners, investors, Boards, and employees. If not, they could turn against you under the pressure of a growing call for action.

Managing Media in Multiple Countries

Are you challenged with extending your company’s brand awareness through global media with a small staff and budget?

Last year, I spoke with the head of media relations for one of the largest tech firms in Silicon Valley. To my surprise, they faced the same challenges as smaller firms and non-profits – how to effectively manage media relations in multiple countries.

Outreach to journalists in multiple countries needs to be handled differently in order to develop effective relationships around the globe. A brush stroke approach will never work and may even set you back. Do not assume what works in one country or region will work in others.

Here are five tips for working with journalists globally:

Know the media culture. Your in-country staff and/or consultants are the experts. Have conversations with them to understand how press operate, how they view the work of the organization, who the most prominent journalists are in your subject area and what interactions they have had in the past.

Approach journalists as is expected in their country. Find out from your own research, in-country staff, partner organizations and other experts on how journalists prefer to be approached. Your professional network can be extremely valuable here – mine it for those who have worked in-country.

Hire a local consultant to initiate relationships. A local consultant will often be a former journalist with existing relationships with the press. They can help with introductions and with briefing you and your team on how to best approach the media to ensure a successful foundation.

Have a member of staff present for informal and formal briefings. If you have a country director/manager, they will have the history and the context of the organization’s work and how it has been covered by the journalist and perceived in-country. They can serve as the content expert and prevent you from falling into any traps.

Always follow-up. Distance should never be used as an excuse not to continue a connection. Use Skype and email. Send thank you notes at all times. Keep the conversation going and keep them up-to-date on your company’s work globally so they feel included and valuable.

Remove geographic borders from your planning. Include these journalists in your overall media outreach strategy. Do not think in terms of geographic borders, planning just within the boundaries of where you are headquartered or located.  Think globally every time you plan media outreach and develop a strategy for each country. It’s time-consuming, but it is an investment that will pay off in the long-run..

Missing the Message

As last night’s election coverage results came in, many were shocked, none more so than the media.

In real-time, we watched many network reporters struggle through their emotions with dismay written all over their faces and haltingly in their voices. The failure went deeper than a campaign, it was a failure of a profession to adequately deliver on what it was created to do – to understand the pulse of the people.

As the graphics in the background depicted the march of the red, the verbal commentary seemed not to match the reality of what was happening.

How did we get here?

Not very long ago, journalism was a revered profession. In journalism school, reporters were taught to do the hard work – to research and get to know their local communities, what people were thinking, what challenges they were facing. To get out of the newsroom, talk with people, ask the hard questions.

As newsrooms were privatized in the 1980s, the profit agenda began to rise within newsrooms. Jobs were reduced, beats were reduced, and investigative reporting was no longer the norm. As a result, journalists began to spend more time in the newsroom seeking out other stories online to expand on – not spending as much time out in communities, interviewing and understanding what people were thinking.

Over time that has expanded to become the media bubble that is New York and Washington with an over reliance on pundits and the pressure of the 24/7 news cycle to seek out experts who may not truly be so in their field.

How do we move on from here?

The chasm between those covering the election and those voting was obvious. To close it, national media outlets must strive to reconnect with the American people – to understand their lives, their challenges, their hopes and dreams from all corners of the country. They must re-invest in the basics of reporting and recommit to the ethics of journalism – to present the news in a fair, impartial manner.

In short, they must re-invest to regain their relevance in the eyes of the public.

The Fiat Public Relations Campaign

We’ve all seen it – the Fiat travelling the streets of Washington and New York with the Pope waving from the back seat.

I was on my way back from a meeting – Starbucks in hand – when I encountered the Pope and his Fiat.

What struck me was the respect shown by the motorcade – the slowest moving, most silent motorcade I had ever seen – and this little Fiat with a very hunched over Pope (he looked uncomfortable) surrounded by numerous SUVs.

It was clear from the reaction of the people around me that he is adored and is creating a new awareness and affection for the Catholic Church among all denominations. Just a few years ago, the Church was beset with scandal and the Vatican was appearing increasingly out of touch.

So what have they’ve done to change perception?

Establishing a Strong, yet Simple, Brand. Pope Francis is very much the everyman Pope. Taking seriously a vow of poverty and becoming the voice of the voiceless. That is his brand. With every speech, he exemplifies and expands upon his brand, and with every appearance, he symbolizes his brand.

Using Symbolism to Reinforce Message. The Fiat exemplified symbolism in action. It was simple and everyman while also underpinning the message of his visit – addressing climate change. It was a powerful message that was shared via social countless of times – further extending the message.

Ensuring Image and Actions are Aligned. There is a story making the rounds that an aide to the Pope carried his luggage on board one of the flights. The Pope asked him to bring the luggage back so he could carry it onboard. He is very aware of his image and works to ensure his actions are consistent with his image.

Being Straightforward and Honest. The Pope has been straightforward on the issues facing the Catholic Church and has taken these issues on directly as opposed to ignoring or hiding from them. By doing so, he has engendered trust and respect among the public not only for himself, but also for the Church.

A Brand Experience Lesson from a NYC Cab Driver

Late on Saturday night after a hectic day in Manhattan, I hailed a cab on fifth to take me to the airport. The first thing I noticed was how clean it was – I had never seen a cab so clean.

The driver was also dressed immaculately and was very calm. I thought to myself, “Is this real?”

Lou the driver explained that he had been driving a cab in New York City since 1969. He considers himself an ambassador and his cab an embassy. I wanted to ask if he offered asylum as well. It was as if we were driving around the city in an oasis of serenity.

As a little boy growing up outside Guayaquil, Ecuador, he had dreamed of a job and a city where he could meet many people around the world.

He achieved his dream and has shared advice on how he aims to be the best in his job every day through the brand experience he creates:

Create the experience from the beginning. From your first interaction with a brand you should feel – and notice – the difference that sets it apart from other similar brands. Of the 13,600 licensed cabs in New York, Lou is able to set himself apart from the start.

Engage with your customers. At this point in his career, Lou is a great psychologist and knows how to subtly get his customer’s attention. And he starts with the customer’s favorite topic: themself. He is not overbearing in his approach.

Be a great conversationalist. He is also a great conversationalist and a master storyteller. He provided me with many life lessons on my way to the airport. He also had me in tears laughing after I learned he was married to his fifth wife (he highly recommends marrying several times and advises to always have a bag packed in case they ask you to leave).

Listen carefully. Lou’s best tip was to remember that your mind and your words are connected – use them well and remember to actually listen to your customer. Find out what makes them tick, what their needs are from their perspective, not your brand’s perspective.

Lou has a manuscript about his life sitting in the passenger seat of his cab. I urged him to get it published. Hopefully, you’ll be lucky enough to meet Lou on your next trip to NYC. And if not, his book will be a riveting read.