The Art Of The CEO Apology

We all make mistakes, some more costly than others. Mine, fingers crossed, have so far been either dumb and inconsequential or even dumber with fortuitous results (I am a freelance consultant now, after all).

But when you’re a CEO, crossing fingers and hoping things will go away is simply not an option. At least it isn’t unless you’re the CEO of United Airlines which is currently fighting to restore its already embattled reputation after a series of mistakes of a quite extraordinary magnitude.

Most of us know the scenario and have seen the video. On an overbooked flight which allegedly needed to accommodate four United Airlines staff, a doctor – picked at random - was forcibly dragged off and injured by three security staff after he refused to relinquish his seat. The atrocious behaviour of United Airlines and Chicago airport staff was bad enough but what really capped off the United Continental PR disaster was the CEO’s apology.

It’s one of the most meaningless, half-baked non-apologies ever written by someone who, one assumes, enjoys being thought of as an industry leader. Oscar Munoz apologises for ‘having to re-accommodate customers’…is conducting a ‘detailed review’…and ‘reaching out to this passenger’. Having seen the video multiple times, I’m pretty sure not a single person anticipating boarding a plane today would welcome the prospect of a member of United Airlines reaching out to them now. Some reach.

So a PR disaster was made infinitely worse by the boss’s crass attempt to douse the flames, which instead he fanned with gusto.

Here then are my well-practised rules for saying sorry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or a husband/father/son/lowly member of the team, they work…

Say It –In one of the management books gathering dust on my shelf, I believe this highly unusual step is known as an Illocutionary Force Indicating Device. The rest of us just say sorry. Mr Munoz apologises not for the episode but for having to ‘re-accommodate’ customers. As my daughter would say, WTF?! CEOs think the word sorry weakens them, makes them look fragile at a moment when they need to show strength. It doesn’t. It makes them look human – which one supposes they are but then again you’re never quite certain.

Name People – As of this moment, we don’t know the doctor’s name but we will later today. Calling him ‘the customer’ makes you look inhuman and him like a number. Part of apologising involves looking like you actually care. Personalising is essential.

Offer Recompense – If I break something, I’ll apologise and pay for a replacement. If a company makes this kind of public error, one of the first things it must do to help restore public confidence is dip into its deep pockets and offer something. Anything. Instead United pledges to ‘talk directly’ to the victim – and he is a victim. Would it really have hurt your profit margins to say you’re giving him free internal flights for the rest of his medical career?

Offer Explanation – Let’s face it United PR team, we’re going to find out what happened anyway so it’s better to ‘fess up as soon as you can. Conducting a ‘detailed review’ is bland management-speak for ‘we’re going to try and cover this up but will provide some sort of hopelessly inauthentic excuse in a few days when something else is in the headlines’. Don’t wait to be exposed, telling the truth makes you look much stronger and more contrite.

Be Emotional – Yes, I know you’re a CEO but sadness helps people think you’re genuinely sorry. Mr Munoz, your email displays not a single hint of emotion – it is cold, robotic and looks like it was compiled in a corridor. Think about your customers and the media – this story is packed full of anger, upset, worry, shock. It is an emotional story so fight it with some character.

Use A Thesaurus – ‘Upsetting’ is the only word in this statement that means anything to real people. For a corporate apology to work, it needs to read like something someone would say. ‘Re-accommodate’, ‘reach out’, ‘address’, ‘resolve’…they might work in the boardroom but unfortunately you’re now talking to many millions of people who may never fly United again. Talk to them.

Be Specific – Vagueness just raises more questions. The more specific you can be (and we all know that you know what happened) the more rapidly a company can turn the issue around.

Take Responsibility – If you don’t Mr Munez – and you really haven’t in this statement - it sounds like an excuse not an apology. Instead of ‘our team’ sorting things out, tell the world, your shareholders and the poor saps on the frontline who will no doubt face the flak from angry customers, that you are dealing with it. You. Personally. The buck has stopped, Mr Munez.

Make A Promise – Apologies, as anyone who has ever been married or had children understands, come with the proviso that it ‘won’t happen again’. OK, it might happen again, but the sentiment sounds good. It looks genuine and actually, fingers crossed, it may not happen again. Or at least you’’ be able to cover it up more effectively next time. It also provides those wronged with confidence and reassurance – brand essentials that I fear may now take some time for United to win back.

A proper apology really could have made all the difference…

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