You must have heard about Anton Casey’s remarks on his Facebook page about train commuters in Singapore and the inevitable backlash that followed. I was quite disappointed that he chose such a crass and insensitive way to express himself.
Where was the wit, sarcasm and self-deprecation Brits are known for?
An apology followed (through a press release distributed by a PR agency) and this is where I’d like to discuss in how public apologies are made by brands and celebrities. Here are some considerations you should take note of when handling a similar crisis.
Say sorry because you are
First of all, make sure you’re apologising because you mean it and not because you have to. There’s a difference when you’re sorry that something happened or when you’re not actually sorry at all but feel compelled to issue an apology anyway.
Take the case of BP. When their CEO, Tony Hayward, was interviewed at the site of an oil spill caused by the company, he said: “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption this has caused their lives. No one wants this to be over more than I do. I want my life back.”
If you had watched it, you would wonder if he’s really apologising for the accident, or if he’s more upset that his daily schedule had been affected.
Say it quickly
Anton issued a press release as soon as he realised that “Hey, I think a lot of Singaporeans are upset with me”. He hired a PR agency to make sure his messaging is spot on and they issued a press release to deliver this message.
Usually, using a PR agency would have been a smart move for these situations. But to issue a press release through the agency raised even more questions about the sincerity of his action.
The typical sentiment was: “Did he just pay someone off to say sorry on his behalf?”.
But at least he reacted quickly (though it’s likely precipitated by the threats he received). Compare this to Tiger Woods after his car crash which led to a whole lot of his private shenanigans being revealed.
Woods didn’t immediately admit to his wrongdoings and stayed silent for a long time after the incident, which meant it was the media who led the story. Reacting quickly with an apology would have given him better control on how the news was reported.
Toyota also didn’t react fast enough on reports on their cars with wonky accelerators, which was serious enough to cause several lives in the US. The callous manner on how they initially denied the problem (done primarily through, ahem, press releases) didn’t help their brand image at all.
Blaming it on driver error didn’t help either.
The follow up
For individuals, the obvious course of action is to stay low and leave the country. Or if you’re a Hollywood celebrity, you are likely to check yourself in at a rehabilitation centre and wait for the storm to pass.
That’s what Mel Gibson did after his anti-Semitic rant went public.
However, laying low may not an option if you are a large, consumer-facing organisation like BP or Toyota. There’s usually a set of protocols to follow once a crisis hits and this is when the legal department and comms go head to head.
Legal will advise against any ownership of mistake to eliminate the risk of class action suits, while the comms team will advise on owning up and start work on recovering the trust of stakeholders.
For Toyota’s case, they changed approach and started engaging their customers in a way that outlines clearly that their safety is the utmost importance.
Whether or not your stakeholders want to forgive you depends how truly contrite you are, what you are doing to rectify it and how you ensure it won’t happen again.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Idran Junadi is an Account Director at the Hoffman Agency, where he manages all aspects of client servicing, planning and executing social media campaigns, mentoring team members, and new business development. Idran holds a Diploma in Mass Communications from Ngee Ann Polytechnic and a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Monash University.